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?”