By Tessa Adams
Photography by Kelsey Kinard
Taking a step back in time is not as difficult as it sounds for any Gettysburg local or frequent tourist. Watching a horse trot down Steinwehr Avenue, past numerous witness trees with a coachman decked out in a uniform straight out of the 1800s is a typical Friday evening for those who have experienced Gettysburg. Speaking with a passionate historian is also relatively commonplace in the Gettysburg area, but no one’s contagious enthusiasm will capture passersby quite like that of Chaplain René Kinard and his wife, Rommi.
They have been sharing America’s history in a way like no other in Adams County. Their unique performances are requested by churches and schools from Canada to Georgia throughout the year. So, what does the couple bring to the table that other historians do not?
While some may find history so fascinating they can sit and listen about it for hours, the Kinards knew there had to be a more creative way to capture audiences about its importance. René, a pastor since 1997, reflects on the day he and his wife decided to create what they now call a “living historical church service.”
Nearly 20 years ago, the couple was strolling through Little Round Top when the sun began to set. “Out of nowhere came these people—I think they were angels—dressed head to toe in clothes from the Civil War era. Before this experience, I always thought that looked weird.
“I thought, ‘Aren’t you hot!?’ But this was beautiful. They stopped in front of my wife and me and began to sing ‘Amazing Grace.’ I had tears streaming down my face as they left, and it was then that I knew I had to connect with others in our area to remind them that our freedom was not, and is not, free,” René says.
“I looked at my wife and knew we had to start spreading the word, along with His word, but in a way that people would listen. We took a moment to let this message from God sit with us, and then I had the idea of creating living historical church services. I remember asking Rommi, ‘Did they even have chaplains back then?’”
The rest is, ironically, history.
René has been impersonating famous reverends throughout history and says he has led “a multitude” of people to Christ because of his services. His favorite to portray is the Rev. John Harper, a Scottish Baptist pastor who died on the Titanic. René notes that he has yet to research or portray a pastor with whom he didn’t align. “It’s incredible; I feel like I truly get to know these people, and they help me along in my own ministry,” he says.
“We don’t ask you to pay anything,” he adds with a laugh, “except that you pay attention.”
René says he and his wife will spend a year, if not more, researching new characters before portraying them, attempting to get every detail right, down to each button on their uniform. “The uniforms draw people in,” René says. “And let me tell you, they are not cheap!”
The Kinards say one authentic uniform, without accessories, can cost up to $1,200. René also mentions never to call a reenactor’s attire a costume. “Costumes are for Halloween,” he says with a laugh.
Rommi enjoys researching and playing reverend’s wives, although her favorite character to play is Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch watchmaker who helped Jews escape the Holocaust. Rommi reflects on the bravery and courage of the women she portrays during a time where women didn’t have much of a platform. “America has always needed a hero,” Rommi notes as she discusses her characters dating from 1776 to 2019. “We become characters in history, ranging from the colonial period to the Civil War era to World War II. We even do a cowboy themed church!” Indeed, the Kinards have a church experience for everyone to witness.
Deb Grove, a friend and frequent visitor to their services, agrees. “My absolute favorite part of their services are the characters that they play,” she says. “[The Kinards] really make you feel like you are back in time and they are the famous people in history they are portraying. It’s incredible to think about what they were going through back then and how [loyal]they remained to their faith.”
Deb and her husband travel from Montgomery, Pa., to Harrisburg and Gettysburg frequently to see the Kinards in action. “We’ve met people from all over the world attending their services. It’s always an exciting and different experience,” she says.
René and Rommi met on a blind date through René’s cousin when they were just teenagers. René credits all of their success to Rommi, who introduced him to Christ decades ago and has supported him in this business endeavor every step of the way. René’s marketing is as simple as his message: “Mark 16:15—Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation,” he says. “I’m teaching history, but I’m really teaching His story.”
About the Artist
To attend an upcoming service, follow Chaplain René on Facebook (@ChaplainReneKinard) and visit the Events section. To schedule your own living historian experience, visit chaplainrene.wixsite.com/chaplainrenekinard.