Our United Methodist missionaries are sent "from everywhere to everywhere," Thomas Kemper shares. Kemper leads the General Board of Global Ministries, the agency of The United Methodist Church responsible for the training and oversight of our more than 350 missionaries in more than 65 countries around the world.
Kemper joined us for a video conference call as he was preparing to celebrate the 2019 bicentennial of Methodist missions. We talked about how our United Methodist missionaries serve as church planters, medical professionals, theology professors, agricultural experts and so much more. In the process, they share their whole lives with the people they serve.
You will be inspired by the way Thomas talks about missions, the stories of our missionaries and the ways supporting our missionaries helps keep our spirits in shape.
Thomas Kemper and GBGM
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- Learn more about the Methodist Mission Bicentennial.
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- Find out more about the Moravian Watchwords (or Daily Texts) Thomas uses to keep his spirit in shape.
- Read more about Thomas Kemper.
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- Podcast: Faith, Love and Marriage: Get Your Spirit in Shape episode with missionaries from the Democratic Republic of Congo who serve in Côte d'Ivoire.
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This episode posted on April 5, 2019.
Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. Today we are talking with Thomas Kemper about missionaries and how learning more about them can help us grow in our own spiritual lives. I’m Joe Iovino.
Thomas Kemper leads the General Board of Global ministries, the agency of The United Methodist Church responsible for the training and oversight of our more than 350 missionaries. As you will hear in this conversation, our missionaries serve in a variety of ways. They are church planters, medical professionals, theology professors, agricultural experts and so much more. They come from everywhere and go to everywhere—more than 65 countries around the world.
As he was preparing to celebrate the bicentennial of Methodist missions, I got a chance to talk with Thomas on a video conference call about the importance of missions for our church, and for each of our own spiritual lives.
Joe: Thomas Kemper, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Thomas Kemper: Thank you, Joe. It’s good to be here.
Joe: It’s great to have you as part of the podcast today. You are the top executive for the General Board of Global Ministries, and part of your job is to oversee the missionaries and mission projects of the United Methodist Church. Can you give me an idea of what those things are and how many people are in them and where they are in the world?
Thomas Kemper: Yeah, we have, as we say, missionaries from everywhere to everywhere. So the traditional idea very often still when you come to churches here in the United States is that missionaries are people who are sent, Americans sent from U.S., very often white, going to—I sometimes simply say to hot countries somewhere.
This is the traditional ideas. But this is not the reality because we are a global church. We are worldwide network. So we are really dipping into the gifts and graces of people from all around the world, to be sent and commissioned as missionaries.
So of our 350 missionaries, international ones, more than half of them are no longer from the U.S. But you could have the missionaries, for instance, from The Philippines. Just in December I spent a few days with a missionary couple from The Philippines working with Filipino migrants in Taiwan. Or you could have an African from the Ivory Coast starting a new United Methodist Church in the Central African Republic and bringing all this experience. Or in Ivory Coast we have a missionary who is engaged in evangelism and church growth from The Congo. So it’s really something where I think the strength of our church of being a global network also plays out when we send missionaries from everywhere to everywhere.
Joe: Lots of times when I think of missionaries I think of those who are evangelists, preaching out in a big tent meeting somewhere. But other think that our missionaries deal with a lot more than that. What are some of the things that our missionaries are doing?
Thomas Kemper: We have, in the United Methodist Church, we have the Four Areas of Focus, where we say one area is evangelism and church growth; it’s leadership training; there is ministry with the poor; and Global Health. And we at this time have looked at our missionaries and said we want to try to have missionaries in all four categories.
So you have missionaries who start new churches, who are evangelists, especially in those areas in Southeast Asia where we start new United Methodist presence, congregation, house churches. So very often, there missionaries are often evangelists or a church planter.
There are other places where a missionary is a professor of theology or in training. We just recruited a new missionary, for instance, a teacher in the theological seminary there in the Methodist Church is Southern Africa. So that is another part, missionaries as trainers, as leader, professors, coaches.
The third is … In January we were just together in South Africa for our agriculture summit where we brought together all the United Methodist conferences in Africa to look what can we do around agriculture. And as part of it we have about 10 missionaries who are agriculturalists working in Africa with the Methodist churches in improving the agriculture work, the income from agriculture, but also the training of young people in agriculture.
And the last one is the Global Health. From the beginning missionaries were doctors, nurses, and this continues until today that we have doctors and nurses and other health professionals who are missionaries all over the world.
Joe: Is there a way you can give us a sketch of what’s it like in the day of a life of a missionary? or is it so varied that it really…
Thomas Kemper: That’s a nice question. That is so different in each case. That would make it very difficult. But let me say this example.
I was in Taipei in the industrial zone where our iPhones are being made. There are thousands and thousands of Filipino migrants who are cheap labor, who live there, who come there. Some of them are Methodists. Many are not, of course.
Our missionary couple there has moved right into the area, into the industrial zone where the factories are, and has a storefront transformed into a church. So it’s a storefront. Next door you have a karaoke bar. The other side there is a restaurant. On top of the sanctuary which is a storefront…or, let’s say in the back you have a big kitchen because eating together is important. And then on top they live and they share it with some...an emergency or with newcomers.
They really have been there to share their lives. Mission is really are sharing your lives, coming alongside people. And I was very impressed by this work and the solidary, the pastoral elements, but also the advocacy for these people who suffer in these almost slave-like relationships sometimes when they are defenseless migrants in these great operations like in Taipei and corporations around the world.
Joe: You spent 8 years as a missionary in Brazil, was it?
Thomas Kemper: Right.
Joe: What was that like?
Thomas Kemper: That was life transforming for me. My wife and I went there in 1986—a long, long time ago—and two of our three children were born in Brazil. So we have a deep relationship to Brazil and to the Brazilian Methodist Church. I learned so learned so much of who I am today from these years of missionary service.
I was at the Methodist Seminary in Sao Paulo, but I also had the opportunity to work with people in the streets—homeless people—because at that time there was a group of Catholic nuns who had moved into the city center and started to share their lives with those who collected trash to make some money, who just had nowhere to go but to sleep under the bridges there in the center of Sao Paulo. To experience this, to see how the gospel is good news, especially for the poor, for those on the margins, that was life-transforming.
It’s much more difficult when you are the General Secretary and you have a nice office and a good salary. But it’s still something which drives me, this solidary and this good news for the poor, as we find it throughout the gospel and throughout the Bible.
Joe: I imagine that’s a common theme no matter what the missionaries are doing in their assigned location, a lot of times they have that contact with the most marginalized people in society.
Thomas Kemper: I would say that’s definitely the case, especially when we start new churches in some of our areas in Southeast Asia. You start with people on the margins, people who are open to hear this liberating good news of Jesus Christ who came to change their lives and give them hope for their lives and for their communities.
Joe: Is there an experience or an event that stands out for you as something that happened when you were a missionary that was a life-altering experience or something that comes to mind often?
Thomas Kemper: Well, yeah. These Catholic nuns I volunteered with, and we had a soup kitchen. And there are many soup kitchens in the world, but this was very special because what happened was, we went under the bridge after the weekly market. And there we started to negotiate with the vendors some leftover vegetables, fruits and heads of the fish which had not been sold because people just wanted the filet but not the head. So we worked together with the people living in the street trying to get the food we needed for our soup kitchens.
Then the cooking was done on an open fire. And the fire wood also came from the market because it was the boxes people had carried the vegetables in, or the groceries or whatever they were selling on the market. So basically everything with the exception of the salt and oil, everybody was able to contribute. And that changed the relationships.
We were sitting together. We were cutting off the rotten spots of the cucumber or whatever we used. And then prepared the soup together and we ate it from tins, which were transformed into little tins used just as our soup bowls. So it was somewhere where everybody got contributed. Everybody received. We were eating together, preparing together, and then we celebrated worship together under the bridges. And it completely transformed that moment because it was not some people who gave and others received. But it was about all receiving and giving, and that’s what mission is about, you know.
Joe: You mentioned earlier about coming alongside the people. That’s a great example of that.
Thomas Kemper: Yeah, it was D. T. Niles who famously said, Evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. And that really changes the perspective on how we are in mission and how we want to send missionaries.
Joe: I like that quote a lot. In your role now as General Secretary of Global Ministries, what kind of training do our missionaries receive before they go out into field?
Thomas Kemper: Our missionaries have a 4-week training right here in Atlanta. We also have a whole group of young adult missionaries, the Global Missions fellows, about 120, in service every year. Their training very often is not happening in the United States. For instance, this year we are planning our training in Cambodia because we are really struggling with visa issues. The restriction on visas makes our lives very difficult for people don’t get visas for the training they don’t get visas for itineration here in the United States. That is a constant struggle we have. So some of our training now is taking place internationally where we have easier access to bring our missionaries in.
And then the training, of course, is cross-cultural communication, theology of mission. It’s the day-to-day practical questions around missionary services. It’s a very, very wide range of trainings. But it’s also a way to treat this spirit of unity among the missionaries. So even if you serve in different parts of the world, today through Facebook, Skype, FaceTime, there are ways of keeping that unity among this class of missionaries. So it has two elements. It has the community building and it is the learning and the training for their specific role.
Joe: I’ve never thought of that. That’s a great… Even though they’re in different parts of the world in some ways they’re doing very similar things. That’s great that they can stay connected.
Thomas Kemper: Exactly.
Joe: I think many United Methodists feel kind of far removed from our missionaries that are on other… because they’re far away from us. You might see them once every couple of years when they come back. So, tell me about the importance of missionaries and why the average member should be invested in what our missionaries are doing.
Thomas Kemper: I agree with you, Joe. This is a real challenge especially as missionaries become so international.
In the old days, so to say, there were John and Mary who you knew from Sunday school. You may have been together in Sunday school class, and then suddenly one moment they felt called into missionary service and the whole church prayed for them, supported them financially, sent them letters, and it was kind of a natural fit. If your missionary is from Cameroon and French-speaking and so how do you create that relationship? And we are experimenting with Skype, presence in worship services here. As I said, sometimes it’s difficult to even get them for itineration.
So that is something we are hope our local churches learn more and more to also embrace missionaries, who do not speak English, who are not from your local community, from a different church because it’s so important that we have these missionaries from everywhere to everywhere.
But I think what a local church really benefits from this is to become part of the worldwide church, to see it in a concrete person, how this is playing out to be a worldwide connection, in other parts of the world and see it through the eyes of a missionary of somebody very concrete. They know the name, they can pray for, they come for a visit 2-3 years to the local church. And that creates really a sense of living our Christian faith on a global map, which you do not get if you are not connected to a missionary. And I think that’s an important part.
Joe: And there are ways to do that, right? There are ways on the website that we can learn more about missionaries in parts of the world we might care about.
Thomas Kemper: On our website, UMCMission.org you find a lot of examples. You have a bio on every missionary we have. You find a bio and a short description of the placement.
We have also a series of… It’s called “fearless fellows,” where the young people, the global mission fellows are being interviewed, a brief interview about what they do and what their work is.
Then there’s also a series called “I Am a Missionary.” These are all testimonies from our missionaries. So this is really a first glance you can get. And then you can work with our itineration office and invite missionaries to your church. So you can build a stronger relationship with specific missionaries you want to be really connected and related with.
Joe: Do you have any examples of people who aren’t missionaries, but have seen their faith grow because they’re supporting a missionary?
Thomas Kemper: Yeah, I think my own local church we support a missionary couple in Laos as one of our mission initiatives. And I think in our church we have a lot of people who are not United Methodists. They are not members yet, but they have come because it’s their local church at the corner of the city where they live. Solidly through this I think their faith is growing to see that my faith is not just about what is happening here right at this corner of my city, but I’m linked to Christians and to a world community and a faith which goes so far beyond my local situation. And I think this is encouraging. It’s challenging. But it really deepens your faith when you get into this experience.
Joe: And expanding that worldview, so often we see our faith in our own context, and being able to see that in a boarder… must be really helpful for people.
Thomas Kemper: I strongly believe that this is helpful if it is really done on a regular basis. If you pray for these missionaries, and of course we encourage our missionary church to write these letters to stay in touch with these people they support. So it’s really creates this relationship.
Joe: Wonderful. And as United Methodists we know that this has been part of our history almost from the very beginning of the Methodist Church, from John Wesley going to where poor people gathered to share medicine and the gospel, and then Thomas Coke’s travels to the West Indies. What do you think makes United Methodists so passionate about missions?
Thomas Kemper: I think we are passionate about mission because that’s how we started. John Wesley was on his horse; he was traveling. He couldn’t take much with him. He had to build relationships. He had to go to people and talk to them and receive from them something to eat, their hospitality.
The same was true for Francis Asbury when he traveled, and the circuit riders. All this building relationships and that’s how our mission and our movement grew, because we were able to rebuild relationship and not be parochial, not to stay just in our parish. The famous word ‘the world is my parish’ you know, because you were going out. You received and gave to people in being in mission and traveling. And that is happening to missionaries today.
They leave their home place. They leave their family, their security, their safe place, become vulnerable. But this vulnerability, this need to receive from the people where they go, opens incredible opportunities for mission and for church growth.
Joe: I’m also aware that in 2019 we are celebrating the bicentennial of Methodist Missions. Can you tell me about that?
Thomas Kemper: Yeah, we are celebrating 2019 as a very special year.
On April 5, 1819 the first Methodist missions society was founded in Manhattan, in New York. This was the beginning of the United Methodist Church and its predecessors and the different mission boards, EUB and all that today are the United Methodist Church.
And what is fascinating, Joe, and we will celebrate this at a special event in September is that the first Methodist missionary was an African American. It was John Stewart who in 1819 went into mission alongside the Wyandotte Native American in Ohio, specifically in Upper Sandusky. And that is such an amazing story because the engagement of missionaries with Native people was not always life-giving.
We know the story of assimilation, elimination, thousands and thousands of Natives who were died at the conquista. So this story is very special. When I went to Upper Sandusky last April, the first time, to the place where John Stewart is buried, there is a cemetery which belongs to the Methodist Church. It was given by the Wyandotte to the Methodists when they had to leave Ohio after the Indian Removal Act of President Andrew Jackson. They wanted to make sure that their ancestors were not removed from that place, their chiefs were not removed. So they reburied actually John Stewart from the place where he died on his farm to this place where the chiefs were buried. And this still exists today.
This year we will give this piece of land back to the Wyandottes who, for all these almost 200 years, have seen John Stewart almost as a saint. And I think it is positive and life-giving mission through John Stewart because he was also from the margins. He was somebody, as an African American, who did not come from a place of power, but he came from a place, as I said, at the beginning of sharing, of having to receive, being made welcome. It is an amazing mission story…a life-giving mission story that started with John Stewart going to be a missionary among the Wyandotte, crossing boundaries, crossing culture, languages, 200 years ago. So we are pretty proud of this beginning of the Methodist mission and are celebrating it in a very special day this year, different places and with different events.
Joe: Wow. His grave was moved so he would be buried with the chiefs? Is that the idea?
Thomas Kemper: Yes. He was buried on his farm. Because a missionary, those days, that was why the mission society was founded 200 years ago, to support him. But he had come already some years ago and he really started by farming and sharing the gospel. So when he died only a few years later he was buried on his farm. But then later when the Native Americans had to leave they reburied him right there where their cemetery was alongside their elders and their chiefs. Also, they had the two first Methodist Wyandotte lay preachers who are buried there.
Thomas Kemper: It’s a fascinating place, a small place—Upper Sandusky in Ohio.
Joe: What a fascinating story and what an interesting—going back to your idea of one beggar offering another beggar where the bread is. That’s a good illustration of the way that happens.
Are there other events that are happening to celebrate this bicentennial?
Thomas Kemper: In April we have a big conference here in Atlanta called Answering the Call: Hearing God’s Voice in Methodist Mission Past, Present, and Future, which brings together about 250 mission leaders and mission theologians from around the world. It’s a joint event with Candler School of theology and Global Ministries. We have some key speakers, Bishop Muyombo from The Democratic Republic of Congo. We have Arun Jones, who is a professor of evangelism at Candler School of Theology and World Christianity. We have Joyhaba Beho who is a young person working with the Youth Department of the World Council of Churches, and a young Methodist from The Philippines, bring a youth address. And then many workshops also on Native Americans, of course, but many other aspects of mission. So it’s a very large conference which will be a highlight, the second week in April where we are celebrating the 200 years. And the 21st of September we will all be Upper Sandusky. The Ohio conferences and the Wyandottes, they will come with several busloads of people to celebrate together John Stewart as a first missionary.
Joe: That is so remarkable.
Well, the last question I ask every guest of Get Your Spirit in Shape is how do you keep your spirit in shape?
Thomas Kemper: Various things. But one, when I saw the question I was thinking one thing I really want to share is do you know the Moravian watchwords?
Joe: No. Tell me about that.
Thomas Kemper: That is something that I have practiced or used for many, many years. It was really started by Zinzendorf, the founder of the Moravians, Count Zinzendorf, the German, as I’m German and they’re very famous in Germany, but used all around the world.
The first were really in 1726 or so, I think it was in written, format in 1731, you have the first Watchwords. And they draw a watchword for the day. The first year they did it, they went from house to house in Herrnhut. They had about 20 houses which belonged to the community. And the person came in the morning. They drew a word from the Bible, and this was the watchword for the day.
Now it’s much more sophisticated. They draw the words from the Old Testament, from the Hebrew Bible, for every day. Then somebody draws a New Testament word. And that New Testament is not… Sorry, it is not drawn, but chosen to correspond with the watchword for the day from the Old Testament. Then the third element is a verse from the hymnal, or a poem or something which speaks to these words.
I use it for my personal devotion. What I feel so strongly about is that this is being read by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. So when I read it, I don’t read it alone, although I don’t read it alone. And I receive it on Twitter. So it comes into my Twitter feed and it breaks into my day and it connects me with people around the world, especially many friends and sisters and brothers in Germany. But it’s now being used I don’t know in how many languages, a little bit like the Upper Room, but let’s say more simple. It’s just the word of God, Old Testament, New Testament and a verse, a hymn or something. So this is something very strong for me which I’ve used for a long, long time.
Joe: I’ll have to provide a link to that when we do the show notes for this episode.
Thomas Kemper: Oh yeah, that would be great.
Joe: I have a question that just kind of occurred to me. I apologize for this, but how many languages do you speak personally?
Thomas Kemper: I speak German, Portuguese and English. I can manage in French and Spanish, though Spanish, because of the Portuguese, and the French I used to speak much better. I studied in Paris for a semester. So my French was pretty good. But I don’t use it much now. So I can get along. I can understand and read, but I would not say I’m fluent in French at this moment.
Joe: That’s amazing. The more missionaries I meet their ability to be able to speak in multiple languages is remarkable. I was talking to a missionary from Africa who couldn’t count the number of African languages that she could speak in addition to English, French and… It was crazy.
Thomas Kemper: And Africans are probably the most gifted. I think it’s because they start very early on to have several languages. So you create a kind of…. You almost have it in your DNA. You are much more capable than others in learning languages and speaking languages. So that’s definitely a gift, especially our African brothers and sisters.
Joe: That’s amazing. Well, Thomas, thank you so much. I have really appreciated this time and this wonderful conversation today.
Thomas Kemper: Thank you, Joe. And blessings for your podcast. It’s a great way of getting the good news out. Thank you.
Joe: That was Thomas Kemper of the General Board of Global Ministries. To learn more about our United Methodist missionaries, the bicentennial of Methodist Missions, and the Moravian Watchwords and their connection to our Methodist history, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode.
There’s a link on that page to help you find other United Methodist podcasts that you might enjoy, and another link to my email address so you can share your thoughts about Get Your Spirit in Shape with me.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation that will help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.