Thomas Kemper: Why I Choose the United Methodist Church
I find special guidance for all parts of life in our Wesleyan emphases on spiritual and social holiness. A strong spiritual life expressed in social contexts is to me the essence of being Methodist.
I was born into a parsonage—my father was a Methodist pastor in Germany; actually, we are from the Evangelical United Brethren side of the United Methodist family and we moved easily into the minority Methodist community in predominantly Lutheran and Roman Catholic Germany.
As the first born child after two miscarriages, my parents saw me as a long awaited gift of God. Their unconditional love has marked my life. It was my early experience in what we Wesleyans called the “optimism of grace.” We had regular evangelistic campaigns in our church and it was in a mission tent I felt the very personal call to follow Christ. This call was nurtured through my family and church. I learned to see Christ rooted in the solid, intimate group of Christian friends in our local youth group and in the personal relationships of a small United Methodist Church.
My father was born during World War I and raised in the extreme poverty of those years. While politically and theologically very conservative, he was a strong anti-war advocate because of his experiences as a soldier in World War II. His influence was one of the main reasons why I became a conscientious objector, rejecting the obligatory military service in West-Germany.
My alternative service took me to the German Methodist Mission in London. In England, I experienced Methodism in a way I had not in my small German UMC congregation – church as a public advocate for peace and social justice while deeply rooted in Wesleyan tradition and spirituality. I also learnt about the global nature of Methodism itself by living in an international Methodist student’s hostel. That set me on fire for issues about world Methodism and the wider global family.
One highlight of those years, with strong, lasting influence, was when I attended the World Methodist Conference in Dublin in 1976 as a youth delegate. I shared a room with Derek Kotze, the white youth secretary of the Methodist Church in Southern Africa. His black counterpart in the youth department had been denied an exit visit from South Africa. Every night Derek kneeled in prayer for justice and liberation in his homeland; every morning, he rushed to the news stand for fresh information on the struggle against apartheid. Derek’s spiritual depth and his social consciousness have stayed with me through the years, including when I went back to Germany and continued to be involved in the anti-apartheid movement.
I have found in the years since then and in many places around the world that what binds us together as Methodists is: the experience of our faith as a “social religion” that is lived out with others in community and which is rooted in a deep spirituality out of which grows a commitment to social action. I know this blog is all about United Methodism but this wider Methodist family has always been as important to me. And I must mention what my Catholic sisters and brothers and the Latin American liberation theology taught me about the role of the Bible in mission during my years as missionary in Brazil. I discovered the communal reading of the Bible from the perspective of the poor: from life to the Bible and from the Bible to life. This insight has shaped much of my approach to mission and makes me thankful that we have chosen Ministry with the Poor as a focus area of our church. I profoundly believe and have seen how the Gospel transforms individual lives and the world. I am grateful to be a Methodist and I strive to live up to our Wesleyan ideals as a member in the United Methodist Church community. I am even more grateful that I am allowed to participate in the “Missio Dei”, God’s mission, and to be invited and challenged, to catch the hem of God’s coat while God moves through the world.
Thomas Kemper is top executive of GBGM. From 1985 - 1994, he served as a missionary in Brazil before returning to his native Germany to lead ecumenical learning at the Lippische Landeskirche, a regional church of the Association of Protestant Churches. From 1998-2010 he served as mission leader for the United Methodist German Central Conference.