“New priest answers call to St. James’ Church”

Kemper Anderson
Kemper Anderson is the new priest at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Cedartown. He comes to the church after 30 years’ service as a police officer and Coast Guard Reservist.

Polk County Standard-Journal. Originally posted: Thursday, August 20, 2015 11:00 am.

By Trish Cambron

Anyone reading Kemper Anderson’s resume for the first time might question why a 56-year-old man with 30 years’ combined experience in police work and the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve would want to start over as a newly ordained priest at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Cedartown.

After all, with a state and a military pension, Anderson could easily be enjoying an early retirement doing the things he loves—sailing, hiking, playing music, riding his motorcycle, and spending time with his wife, Philippa, and their five children.

But for Anderson, all of his life experiences, from his first job as a 23-year-old medic working for an ambulance company in Atlanta, to taking part in the rescue efforts during the Hurricane Katrina disaster as part of the Coast Guard response team, have been in preparation for answering a call to ministry.

He was only 21, a college student and musician, when he first heard that call.

The “nudge,” as Anderson puts it, was forceful enough that he talked to his priest at St. Anne’s Episcopal in Atlanta about what he should do.

Father Frank Allen, who was to become the much-loved Bishop Allen of the Diocese of Atlanta, advised him to wait.

“He told me to finish school, get a job, and perhaps start a family, and see where the call led,” Anderson said. “I took him at his word and over the years grew to understand that God had a lot of work to do with me, to mold me and form me into the minister He meant me to be.”

On Call

Anderson says if you had asked him at age 21 what his top career choices would be, policing would not have made it into the first 100. He had graduated from Northside High School, where he was in the performing arts program. After high school, he continued to play his guitar and sing at small venues around Atlanta.

Anderson also volunteered with the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta’s Emmaus House and the Atlanta Public School System’s Title 10 summer camp program. There, he worked as a counselor with students who were deficient in reading and math, including those with multiple physical disabilities.

One job that was high up on his top 100 career list was that of medic. He pursued certification as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and went to work for an Atlanta ambulance company.

It was while working alongside police officers as an EMT that he began to look at policing in a different light.

“I realized that police officers were much more than just that guy you didn’t want to see behind you on
the highway,” he said.

What he saw was the caring side of policing, the gentle dissuasion from danger that Anderson compares to the nip of sheep dog at the heels of his sheep to keep them from danger.

In fact, he says, “Some of the police officers I have most admired thought of themselves as being on ‘sheep dog duty,’ where their job is to protect the flock and confront the wolf.”

On Duty

Anderson went on “sheep dog” duty in 1984 as one of the first six police officers hired at Kennesaw State
University. For 23 of the 30 years he was at Kennesaw, he was also on duty with the Coast Guard Reserve. He served during both Iraq wars, when the routine reservist duty of one weekend a month service intensified to as much as four months service during a year.

He spent much of his active duty time in Jacksonville, Fla., working the Military Out-load of equipment and supplies to units in Iraq and Afghanistan. His unit also responded to natural disasters like hurricanes Ike and Katrina in 2005, as well as man-made ones like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the coast of Louisiana in 2010.

Anderson said during those years, the call he heard when he was 21 never really left him, “it was always percolating in the back of my mind.”

As he matured as a civil servant and Coast Guard officer, he says he became less focused on the technical aspects of the job—chasing bad guys and plucking survivors out of the water—than in mentoring and supporting the new crop of cops and Coasties coming up behind him.

“I realized that was what I was being more and more called to do.”

Because he had served on active duty during the recent Iraqi wars, he qualified for the G.I. Bill. With a master’s degree in Public Administration already under his belt, he enrolled in the University of the South at Sewanee, Tenn., and graduated with a master’s of divinity in 2015.

Part of the training at Sewanee was to engage in a cross-cultural experience.

Anderson chose to go to Tanzania in East Africa, to work with a village Anglican priest on what he thought would be routine duties.

Instead he found himself accompanying the priest on a whirlwind evangelical tour of the nearly eight square mile village of 4,000 people.

“We prayed, we sang, conducted seminars, laid hands on the sick and met people where they were,” he said.

It was an experience that reinforced his belief that Christianity can span denominations, continents and skin color, “if we let it.”

On Landing

Anderson says landing at St. James for his first experience as an ordained priest feels like an entirely natural progression of God’s plan for him.

“I feel very strongly called—really led—to St. James, ” he said. “During the whole process of me graduating from seminary and finding a church, I was never really concerned that the Holy Spirit would lead me to the right place.”

When he was introduced to St. James, “I made a conscious effort to step back and let things happen, from the first time I saw the church itself to when I started meeting people there,” Anderson said.

“Everything I’ve done up to this point,” he says, “has been from that original ‘sheep dog’ perspective. And now I’m being called to assume a new role as a shepherd.”

Anderson’s perspective as a shepherd is a simple one:

“I can’t explain all the pain and suffering in the world, but one thing I do know: God has a plan for each of us and God’s arms are always open to us. I try and ‘meet people where they are,’ and walk alongside them as they form a deeper relationship with God, through Christ.”

On Home

Anderson and his wife Philippa are currently renting an apartment in Rome while they look for a permanent home in Cedartown. Philippa, a retired teacher, grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. After experiencing the growth of Kennesaw from a small town to a crowded suburb of Marietta, they are both looking forward to dialing back to the pace of a small town.

Anderson said he and Philippa, who is also a musician and plays the auto harp, may even continue the week-night praise music service they organized at their church in Kennesaw.

Anderson says Cedar-town is similar to what Kennesaw was when he first arrived there.

“It was a much quieter place than it is now. Hearing a fire truck was something that would make you perk your ears up,” he said. “And there’s so much light at night now, it’s hard to see the stars.”

Anderson said he is delighted he can see the stars at night in Cedartown.

He is equally delighted with the beautiful and historic St. James Church building and sanctuary. Built on West Avenue in 1883, St. James is the oldest church still in use in Cedartown.

“It is a wonderful, intimate setting in which to preach and celebrate Eucharist. It’s not much bigger than chapel size and you don’t need microphones, you don’t even need to raise your voice. It’s a lovely place to worship.”

St. James Episcopal Church holds services weekly on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. for adult education and at 10:30 a.m. for Holy Eucharist, followed at 11:30 a.m. with coffee and fellowship in the Parish (Wood) House next to the church.