Father Joe Kempf spends much of his 90-100 hour work week within the walls of Assumption Parish, having served as the parish's priest for 12 years. “I get up in the morning, I light my prayer candle, thank God for the miracle of caffeine, and I get about my day,” he said.
Assumption is not the first church at which Kempf has served, though. His work as a priest bloomed in Kimmswick, MO. He continued to Queen of All Saints in Oakville, Our Lady Queen of Peace in House Springs as well as Holy Infant in Ballwin.
Nearly 3,200 households are registered with Assumption. The parish offers programs including Bible study, grievance groups and outreaches for those in need.
Upon first meeting Kempf, it’s easy to see why kids love him and his buddy Big Al. Comical, down to earth and loving are the similarities between Kempf and his helpful hunk of blue friendly, furriness that is Big Al. The duo has been nearly inseparable for the past 14 years. They make a hilarious appearance to the members of Assumption following Communion nearly every Sunday.
“I try not to be jealous of the fact that he’s much more popular than I am,” Kempf said.
The two met years ago when Kempf was working on an eight-part video project for children on grief, explaining that children are often the forgotten mourners. Kempf said that sometimes we don’t know what to say in cases like this. We may say things that aren’t helpful such as, “Well, I’m sure God did this for a good reason," or we don’t say anything at all.
Kempf reminisced that as the project progressed, someone introduced him to Big Al, whom he describes as having a fairly feisty nature, but a compassionate heart.
As the overall popularity of Kempf and his helper Big Al during Sunday messages grew, a nonprofit organization called Gospel Values.
With the help of Gospel Values, the duo created a series of 10 DVDs for children. Each disc features several six to seven-minute clips that focus on questions such as: Is it OK to be angry? The discs include a scripture reading, a presentation from Kempf in front of a group of kids and a flash to hear Big Al's thoughts on the subject.
The idea of prayer books for children featuring the famous furry, blue friend stemmed from the popularity of the DVDs that were put together a few years back by the encouragement of parents.
On the CDs included with the books, Kempf and Big Al have a short conversation before a child reads the prayers. Since the first book, Big Al’s sister, Annie, has made an appearance.
The prayers, written by Kempf, focus on real-life instances such as moving, the birth of a baby, and death.
“It's just simple, real stuff for kids, and I hope they help children pray. And if they can’t read, they can follow along with the CD," Kempf said. "But I also like it for grandmas, grandpas, moms and dads, because sometimes they wonder what do I do?” Kempf said.
This prayer called "When No One Picks Me for Their Team" focuses on popularity and is from the book My Sister or Brother is Annoying!:
"When no one picks me for their team,
Dear Jesus, I feel sad.
Maybe I’m not strong or fast.
That doesn’t make me bad.
They think I have no value.
On their team, I won’t start.
But to You, oh God, I’m special.
You hold me in Your heart."
The amount of praise received from followers of the books, CDs and DVDs makes it more than worth it to Kempf, who has heard countless heartwarming stories about parents and grandparents reciting the prayers with their children before bedtime.
“One dad told me he kept hearing this strange voice in his daughter’s room at night, so he went upstairs and every night, before she went to bed, she would listen to the CD of Big Al and me having our little conversation and the prayers," Kempf said. "And, evidently, it helped her have peace in her heart before she fell asleep. So that feels good."
Underneath the DVDs, the books and the Sunday messages are a few key understandings he strives to get across to youngsters as well as “the child in each person’s heart," Kempf said.
Children are told in countless ways every day that what matters is how they look, what they wear, how much stuff they have, whether or not they win and how popular they are, he said. As followers of Jesus, we believe there is another message, so we work to help our children know that they have dignity, something no one can take from them. We teach them that it matters how we treat each other. We also teach them that have all the love in the universe, Kempf said.
Being a part of a nonprofit, neither Kempf nor anyone in the group receives a penny from the sale of the books or DVDs. Any money they take in benefits their next project or assists in feeding hungry children.
“Anybody who drives down Main Street I think would see we have a beautiful church building, but what they might not know when they drive past is the beauty in which we fill it. There’s a lot of love here and that’s exciting to me.”
To learn more about Kempf, his sidekick Big Al and his sister Annie, check out their website or meet the whole gang in person Sunday mornings at 8 a.m., 10 a.m. and again at noon.