It was never in doubt that University Baptist Church in Hattiesburg would respond compassionately when ICE agents raided food-processing plants in Mississippi last summer, Co-pastor Kathryn Kimmel said.
Hundreds of immigrants were arrested in the sweeps, leaving children and other family members stranded. UBC was among many Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and other congregations finding ways to help.
Kimmel, who goes by “Kat,” said faith made a response imperative for UBC even though the raids occurred in other cities around the state.
“It’s one of the most repeated things in scripture: remember when you were the stranger, remember when you were in Egypt,” said Kimmel, 36. “We are reminded so often.”
And she knows a thing or two about being a stranger. She was dependent on the help of locals during time she spent in Africa. And she’s a native of North Carolina, making her an immigrant of sorts when she joined the staff at UBC in 2013.
Kimmel spoke with Baptist News Global on her initial calling to ministry, her experience as a woman pastor and how she and Co-pastor Brett Harris are moving forward with care for refugees, immigrants and others in need. Her comments are presented here, edited for clarity.
Please share a little of your background.
I was born in Shelby, North Carolina, which is just west of Charlotte. My whole family is in North Carolina. I went to Duke (Divinity School) for my Master of Divinity, and to (Emory University’s) Candler (School of Theology) for my D.Min.
How did you first sense a calling to ministry?
The first inkling I had that this was a possibility for me came when I was a freshman in high school when we got a female youth minister at church. Growing up Baptist, I never saw a lot of women in ministry. She was very important to me in my faith journey. She opened my eyes to the possibilities of what I could do.
How did it develop from there?
I had a great uncle who went into hospice. This was when I was still in high school. When we walked into that room, the chaplain was there. It was the first time I heard my great uncle talk about God and faith and what mattered. That was a huge moment. During my sophomore year in college, my grandfather went into hospice. He really needed to talk about dying and the journey he was on, and no one in the family could really help him with that. But the chaplain could. It was huge to see what that kind of ministry meant for those who were journeying from life to death.
When I think of my calling, I go back to those two experiences and see how important they were for me. When I went into seminary that was my track – I was hoping to head into chaplaincy. I was a hospice chaplain before coming to UBC.
Do you bring a chaplaincy vibe to your congregational ministry?
Pastoral care is an important part of my ministry. I enjoy preaching and I enjoy hashing out scripture, but the pastoral care element is where I often feel the Holy Spirit showing up. I think that’s really where we (ministers) build our trust so we can do the more communal ministry together.
What has been a real joy and sometimes the harder part of ministry is working and staying within a community of people who struggle with hard questions and disagree and love one another anyway. To get to be a part of the everyday holy mess of life with this community is a great privilege and is continually teaching me about the grace and deep love of God.
Did that background help you in the aftermath of the ICE raids?
That’s harder to say because it wasn’t here in Hattiesburg. We didn’t have so many local people deeply affected. Most of our response was through supplies and money. Where we see that pastoral element is by connecting with the large Latin American (college) student population here. Even though they are legal residents, it is still uncomfortable for them. It is scary to see those things happen. When Donald Trump took office, a lot of his rhetoric was really disturbing for these students. So, I spent a lot of time in conversation with them and offering that kind of pastoral care and trust building.
What’s on your plate right now with the immigration issue?
I just spoke with another pastor in the area because we are still working on a community wide conversation (on immigration) in January or February. We want to keep the conversation in the forefront. These things are in the news for only a few days, but people’s lives continue to be impacted for months and years afterward, and we don’t want to forget them.
Did you have much experience working with immigrants before these events?
Not really. But I was in South Africa for a while, and there was so much I couldn’t do because I wasn’t a citizen. I had to depend a lot on others. It’s made me pay more attention to what it’s like to be the stranger or the foreigner in another land.
How do you like the co-pastoring approach at UBC?
I work better when I can bounce ideas off someone. I think we all do if we’re honest. We come from different perspectives and different places and we have different backgrounds and gifts. To be able to combine those and balance our experiences and gifts, I think, is a huge advantage for ministry.
How have you been received as a woman in ministry?
The fact that I am a woman and Baptist pastor still surprises people. And I get comments that I am sure male clergy rarely come across. I think there is still a bias among many when it comes to hiring and taking a chance on a woman lead pastor, but in the day to day work of ministry and in my church in particular, I feel welcomed, loved, respected, encouraged and challenged. And I am a better pastor because of that.
Is it your goal to be a senior pastor eventually?
That’s a funny thing in ministry, to have a goal of climbing the ladder. I guess that could be a calling for someone. I wouldn’t describe it that way for me. If it were the right place, and I felt like I could be a strong leader for the church, then I would be open to that.