“My Pal Big Al”: The Unique Ministry of Fr. Joe Kempf
The big furry blue creature with a gray face and two prominent tusk-like teeth seems to be an unlikely sidekick to a parish priest who was awarded the prestigious Great Preacher Award by Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, Missouri, in 2004. But most of the time, wherever Father Joe Kempf preaches, his “ole buddy” Big Al goes too.
You’ll find the pair gracing the cover of children’s books and DVDs. You’ll even find them online. But wherever you find them, you’ll see or hear them proclaiming what Father Joe describes as the “beautiful, challenging, and life-giving message” of Jesus.
As pastor of Assumption Parish, a large, vibrant faith community in O’Fallon, Missouri, near St. Louis, Father Joe proclaims this message to people of all ages—older adults, young adults, teens—in addition to children. No matter the age of his listeners, he is passionate in trying to convey the great love Jesus has for each person on earth. “There isn’t a place we can go, a situation in which we might find ourselves, that our God isn’t already there, waiting in love to welcome us,” he says over and over.
Father Joe is especially effective when dealing with those experiencing loss and grief. In these situations he is cognizant of humanity’s universal wrestling with the problem of suffering. Father Joe explains the origins of his compassion in ministering to those who grieve. During his seminary training, in his sophomore year of college, a young family friend collapsed on her way to theater practice. She died a few days later. Her family and friends were stunned and devastated. During that time, Father Joe explains, “the question of why? became very real to me. If God is so good, why do innocent people suffer?”
During the days following the young woman’s death, he says he heard “all the old clichés”: God never gives you more than you can handle. Everything happens for a reason. The good die young. God never closes a door without opening a window.
“I found all of this hard to reconcile with my understanding of the goodness of God. So I spent years talking to anybody I thought was smart, reading anything I thought was worthwhile to read, and wrestling in my own prayer about the nature of God, about the question of why?”
Father Joe goes on to explain that he’s also had “a passion in my heart from the beginning” about what to say to someone who has experienced a loss. “No one’s coached us very often about what to say, and so we say things that aren’t helpful at all, such as ‘I know exactly how you feel,’ or we give some religious cliché that sounds as though God sent the suffering.”
As a result of this exploration of how to act with and what to say to the grieving, Father Joe produced an eight-part videocassette series directed to children who were grieving and to those who love them. He followed this project with a series directed to adults and older teens and eventually wrote a book, all of which address the grief experienced by people and how others can respond.
During one taping session, a teenager whose sister had died was being interviewed. Father Joe relates how the teen talked about how his dad wouldn’t say much, how his mom cried a lot, how his sister…“My sister, she feels this way…and…”
The teen went on to talk about how he was dealing with his own grief. Finally, the young man looked directly at the camera and said, “I guess no one cries the wrong way.” The teen’s insight became the title of both the video series and the book, No One Cries the Wrong Way: Seeing God Through Tears.
Early in his priestly ministry, Father Joe discovered he possessed what he calls a knack for relating to children. “Perhaps it’s because my intellectual peer group is about age seven or eight,” he jokes. Nevertheless, when he met Big Al during the taping of the children’s version of No One Cries the Wrong Way, it seemed natural that the two of them should continue to work together. The relationship has endured.
Strangers might describe Big Al as a puppet. But as Father Joe’s grin widens, he puts his finger to his mouth in a “Shh” gesture. “Big Al thinks he’s real,” the priest whispers. Children, too, consider Big Al real. When one youngster cried because someone had told him that Big Al wasn’t “real,” Father Joe gently explained that there are many kinds of real. Father Joe affectionately refers to Big Al as his “ole buddy” and friend.
Though full of energy, when Father Joe talks about the life-giving love of God, his words are measured and thoughtful. And though he talks with his hands, during his homilies those large hands reverently convey the inclusiveness of God’s love. He is entertaining, but he’s not about
entertainment—not even when he brings out Big Al after Communion each Sunday to talk especially to children about the Gospel of the day. Big Al, who doesn’t always “get it” about God’s message, speaks not only to the hearts of the children present but also to the adults and teens. Everyone, children and adults alike, straightens up in the pews as Big Al emerges from his special box. He has proved to be not only a faithful friend but also a great ally in spreading the Good News.
Father Joe’s parish is large, consisting of 3,300 families, an elementary school with 500 students, and a PSR program (Parish School of Religion) numbering 600 students. But because of the popularity of his books, DVDs, and videos, which include those on sacramental preparation, Father Joe has been able to spread God’s message far beyond his parish boundaries.
The busy priest is frequently asked to speak to large gatherings of catechists and teachers, and Big Al usually “speaks” at these functions too. (Big Al sort of grunts his very brief, mostly monosyllabic comments.) During the past several months, the two have been busy signing copies of their recently published book of prayers for children, My Sister Is Annoying! And Other Prayers for Children. Their newest book, You Want Me to Be Good All Day? will be available September 1. Two more books are in the planning stage, but Big Al is being secretive about the details.
The prayers in My Sister Is Annoying! address concerns of children that are also very real concerns for parents. For example, familiar situations such as moving to a new school, divorce, job loss, and family illness—though not specifically mentioned—find expression in “So Many Things Are Changing.” Another prayer, “When No One Picks Me for Their Team,” reflects a child’s yearning to be accepted, something to which many adults can relate.
“I’m convinced that every day, in countless ways, our children are told that if they want to be happy, what matters most is how they look, what they wear, how popular they are, whether or not they win,” Father Joe says. He wants children to hear another message—the “freeing message” of Jesus. “Each person has a dignity that no one can take away. It matters how we treat one another…that Love is with us each step of the way,” he adds.
That conviction sums up why Big Al, helped by Father Joe of course, developed another series of DVDs for children, Big Al LIVE! Gospel Values for Children, though you’ll see “for kids ages 2 to 102” on the descriptive cover. Each of the three discs is based on one cycle of the Sunday readings of the Lectionary and includes ten short presentations. Each has a short Scripture reading, followed by a brief presentation by Father Joe, a “discussion” with Big Al, and a prayer.
“I think God put it in my heart to help children know those messages, which can help set them free. Big Al and I hope to communicate Jesus’ message in a way that kids will ‘get it’ and that will help draw them into and meet this Jesus who loves them so much,” Big Al’s friend says. This conviction led Father Joe to found Gospel Values, Inc., a nonprofit company dedicated to getting the message of Jesus to children who live in a culture that often doesn’t support that message. (For more information, visit www.welovebigal.com.)
Father Joe thinks being a child is often not easy and believes all children need someone who can meet them where they are. By choosing circumstances and situations familiar to children, he hopes not only to meet children but also to help lead the youngsters deeper into God’s love and presence. He emphasizes, “We also need to nurture that which is already in children. I’m convinced children already have a relationship with God—and sometimes they teach us!”
Since the early days of his priestly ministry, Father Joe says that one of his primary responsibilities, preaching a homily each weekend, remains “an exciting…and terrifying challenge for me. In those ten or maybe twelve minutes on Sunday, I have a chance to do the most good of almost anything I do.” His video work has long been and continues to be an extension of that responsibility. Yet this media-savvy pastor reports, “My parishioners, especially younger ones, have pulled me kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century.”
Each weekend, Father Joe’s homily and his two-minute encounter with Big Al are taped. Within an hour after the conclusion of the noon liturgy, the homilies are posted on the parish Web site (www.assumptionbvm.org). This was originally conceived as a way for homebound parishioners to experience an even greater connection to their parish. But others watch the homilies too, including those who have been away on vacation and college students.
Although furry Big Al tries very hard to be good, he is like many people. Sometimes he’s confused and unsure what to do. However, he’s as technologically savvy as most young people in today’s culture—he has his very own interactive Web site!
Popular features of www.welovebigal.com include a message to parents from Father Joe and downloadable coloring pages and desktop wallpaper. Visitors can also submit a prayer request to Big Al. Jeannette Hamann, assistant lay pastoral associate at Assumption Parish, says that each prayer request generates an automatic e-mail response acknowledging the request has been received. More important, she says all requests are distributed to those who have agreed to pray for the petitions.
Since 1995, according to its criteria, Aquinas Institute of Theology has sought to recognize with its Great Preacher Award those whose “compelling and imaginative preaching” has “powerfully engaged listeners with the Word of God.” Three bishops, including a cardinal, are among those who have been so honored: Bishop Paul A. Zipfel of Bismarck, North Dakota; Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta, Georgia; and the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago, Illinois, at the time of his death.
Father Joe and Big Al, though an unlikely pair, have joined this illustrious group. One could wonder how effective each would be alone. But just as the Body of Christ depends on and uses the many gifts of its members, so Father Joe and Big Al complement each other. In doing so, they have powerfully engaged countless listeners to respond to the “beautiful, challenging, and life-giving message” of God.
Barbara T. McElroy is a freelance writer from St. Louis, Missouri, and a former editor with Liguorian.