The Rev. Kemper Anderson says becoming a Coast Guard chaplain is a continuation of his path to the ministry and his second Coast Guard tour of duty.
“I had a ball in the Coast Guard for 23 years. And I’m currently a reservist. I joined in ‘89. And I had been a police officer at that point for about seven years. So, all of the 23 years were kind of concurrent with my police career. So, all of that came to an end when I went to seminary in 2012,” Anderson said during a phone interview from Nashville where he and his wife were celebrating their 30th anniversary.
After 9/11 Anderson’s Coast Guard affiliation provided an avenue into the priesthood that he had been seeking since his twenties.
“During Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, I worked the military loadout mostly out of Jacksonville. And so, just about two years, I was on active duty down there. And the cool thing is, is that, you know, the serendipitous part of that earned me the post 9/11 GI Bill, which paid for seminary.”
Anderson, who will continue to serve St. James Episcopal Church in Cedartown where he has been rector since 2015, said he first felt called to ordained ministry in the early 1980s.
“And like a lot of young 20 somethings, the word I got from the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta was sounds promising but wait. ‘We look for folks with a little more life experience, a little more gray around the temples.’ So, you know, maybe get a job, finish school, start a family, see where the call leads.”
Anderson said he took that advice but said the need to make a living took him down an unlikely career path.
“Policing was the most unlikely career path for me to take. If you had asked me to write down the 100 most likely career paths policing would not have been on them. But I needed a job and needed to support my family. So, it worked out. I was good for policing and policing was good for me.”
By 2011, Anderson’s career path had brought him back to exploring the path to ordained ministry.
“Both in policing and in the Coast Guard, the more senior I got, in a very real way, my work became more pastoral. I had a whole lot less to do with the actual down and dirty police work and the actual technical Coast Guard work. My work was with people. I started moving into a more pastoral role very gradually, as I advanced on both my career fronts.
“And so, when I came back, you know, after being told that, you know, the church was looking for folks who had a little more life experience, grayer around the temples, and went back to the diocese, and they said, ‘Well, you know, we’re looking for younger people.’ I said you’re killing me. You’re killing me. But anyway, God had a lot of work to do with me. And I have grown to understand that I’ve been in discernment, really, for a whole lot longer than when I entered the formal process for the diocese. I’ve been in discernment since at least the early 1980s.”
When Anderson left active duty in the Coast Guard, in 2012 he had an encounter with a superior officer that brought Anderson back to the Coast Guard as a chaplain.
“The Chief of Staff in Miami, Vice Admiral Bushman said, ‘Why are you leaving early?’ And I said, well, I’m going to seminary for the Episcopal Church.” And his eyes kind of lit up a little bit. And he mentioned the Coast Guard was starting up a new program, using its volunteer civilian branch, which is the Coast Guard Auxiliary.
“It was just, it was just a gleam in the eye. But Admiral Bushman said, ‘When you get all of your other ministry commitments in order, you might consider circling back around. You might want to see if you can put your clergy and pastoral care stuff to work for the Coast Guard.”
“So, back in May, it just occurred to me to check it out. So, I looked and found that there was this new program called the Auxiliary Chaplain Support Program for the Coast Guard. And it was harder to get into this program than it was into Officer Candidate School. But it was a great bunch of folks and they have now recruited, and I am the 101st Auxiliary Chaplain who has been approved for work in the Coast Guard.”
Anderson said his primary role will be to be “the eyes, ears, hands, and feet” of the chaplain who works out of Charleston, South Carolina.
“Because while there’s only one Coast Guard unit in Atlanta, which is a recruiting office, there are a ton of Coast Guard families in the Atlanta area with loved ones deployed around the globe. And if some bad news should need to be delivered, or if a family, you know, should need some pastoral care, the closest chaplain is 325 miles away. So, I will be here to basically provide pastoral support to Coast Guard members and their families. I’ll be the only one here in the Atlanta area able to do that.”
U.S. Navy Captain Daniel Mode, The Coast Guard’s chief chaplain, said Anderson’s background makes him especially well suited to his new position.
“In your 23 years as a Coast Guard Reserves Officer, retiring as a Commander, and your seven years of civilian ministry, it is clear that you have cared for service members where they are spiritually and emotionally no matter what their faith, belief, gender, or religion may be,” Mode wrote in a December 1 letter confirming Anderson’s new position. “It is this extensive experience and passion that will help us be the Ministry Team the Commandant expects us to be. Your commitment to continue to serve our great country is most honorable. Welcome aboard!”
While there are other Episcopal priests in the Diocese who serve as chaplains to police and fire, hospitals, schools, and retirement homes, Anderson is one of only two focused on the military.
The Rev. Paul McCabe, rector of Church of the Annunciation in Marietta in 2018 became the first Episcopal Chaplain for the state’s Army National Guard. McCabe previously served in the U.S. Navy and as a police officer and is the disaster planning and response coordinator for the Diocese.
The Rev. Canon Leslie Nuñez Steffensen of the Episcopal Armed Forces and Federal Ministries said Anderson is also the most recent addition to the Episcopal Coast Guard chaplaincy.
“We currently have eight Episcopal Coast Guard Auxiliary chaplains. They serve in Puerto Rico, Maine, East Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Alaska and now Georgia!”