BRANDON — Terry Kemple, the man who would keep homosexuals from marrying in Florida, was saved 20 years ago. When he found Jesus, he did penance for his alcoholism, his neglect of three daughters. He begged their forgiveness.
Then he set out to convert them.
This was Terry Kemple's first try at practicing moral absolutes. They now define his life, drive him politically, put him at the forefront of a Florida campaign against gay marriage.
But being absolute about anything today — either faith, or parenting, or proselytizing — comes rife with collisions.
Kemple and his eldest daughter, Bridgette, "dueled with broadswords."
They argued over abortion rights. They argued over homosexuality. She said it was genetic. He said it was a lifestyle choice.
"Why should I believe that, Daddy?"
"Because I said so."
"You were more fun when you were drinking."
Terry Kemple is a leader in the Florida Coalition to Protect Marriage. He is responsible for bringing in the Hillsborough County vote in November for Amendment 2. It would cast in state constitutional stone marriage between men and women only. No gay marriages. No legal unions. No exceptions.
Kemple believes what the Bible says about creation, but he is all about evolving. He is the prodigal son; the bad turned good; the neglectful father turned remorseful father; the careless man turned careful man.
Light and dark. The process in painting is called chiaroscuro — the contrasting of light and dark to go beyond ordinary dimensions. Renaissance painters found the process a tricky one. Light either illuminates, or blots out everything else.
Redemption has blotted out many of the colors, the funny eccentricities, that his children remember. He usually wears a red, white and blue tie. At 61, his graying beard is clipped short. He looks like a schoolteacher. He blends. "I don't have an anger, a seething rage," he says. "I have never been in a shouting match."
He has made the protection of children his mission. He has hosted sexual abstinence rallies for thousands of teenagers, lobbied for right-to-life laws, declared war on lap dancing. He cruises Christian Web sites. He collects evidence of God's banishment from classrooms, of pornographers' subversion of the First Amendment.
Kemple articulates an absolutist view — that homosexuals are stealing children from Christians by indoctrinating the young to gay lifestyles. He calls it the "homosexual agenda." Gay marriages pose the biggest threat of all.
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Kemple holds a seat at the table of Pastors on Patrol, a group of downtown Tampa ministers who meet at Beulah Baptist Institutional Church, founded in 1865 by freed slaves. At their August meeting, Kemple's was the only white face. The black pastors back the marriage amendment, but they also deal with problems that churches in Brandon never see. Kemple's moral absolutism sometimes bumps against their life-and-death reality.
They met to talk about HIV. Tampa and Miami share the worst infection rates in the state, and blacks account for half of those infections. Even one of the pastors — the Rev. Jerry Nealy of Friendly Missionary Baptist Church — said they could count him as a statistic. "I've been HIV positive for 20 years."
Beulah's pastor, the Rev. W. James Favorite, laid out his vision for an outreach program to families hit by HIV. Counseling, testing, housing, education. Condoms.
Condoms: The word got Kemple's attention. He had founded a nonprofit company called STAND in 2002 to organize chastity rallies for teenagers. He got his message to 50,000 kids that condoms were a false compromise. The only right way — God's way — was sexual abstinence.
Kemple reminded Favorite and the other Pastors on Patrol of that. "If a program isn't primarily focused on abstinence, it loses power."
Favorite told him black churches had tried to ignore the AIDS epidemic for years. AIDS was such a sin that death appeared to be the will of God. But the toll on families has been relentless. The pastors have been chastened by it.
Favorite: "We have to recognize there are people who aren't going to abstain. We can't keep our heads in the sand. We have to talk to them about condoms."
Kemple: "If they could be taught early enough, you wouldn't need condoms."
Favorite: "We tell them not to sin, but if they do sin, condoms are a way out."
Kemple: "But the only way that is 100 percent effective is abstinence."
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Kemple reinvented himself in the mid '80s. He was an alcoholic, divorced, separated from his daughters for 10 years. He would come by on his motorcycle to see the kids in Connecticut. He would say crazy things like, "Let's take a ride to Pennsylvania." The girls got a kick out of that. But when he told them to work hard, to use their brains, it only went so far. Dad was this fun guy who drank. They knew it. He knew it.
In 1986, Kemple paid a visit to his oldest brother, Morry, headmaster of a Christian school in Jacksonville. He went to a tent revival on Sunday with Morry's family.
The star speaker was Tim Lee, the famous evangelist who had lost both his legs in Vietnam. Like Kemple, Lee had been rebellious, godless. He had wandered into the Marines, landed in Vietnam, stepped on a mine. He described the turning point in his life in his autobiography, Deadline: Vietnam.
"The Corpsman began working feverishly applying tourniquets to my upper thighs to stop the blood flow. In a weak, barely audible voice I prayed, 'Oh no! … God, not my legs … Lord … please … God get me home to Mom and Dad … I'll do whatever you want me to do.' "
In the revival tent, Kemple felt overwhelmed. Tim Lee had lost his legs. He had lost his children. He went back that night to hear Lee tell the story again.
Kemple told brother Morry he wanted to change. Morry urged him to get started. "Find a church that preaches the Bible." Kemple lived just a few blocks from Bell Shoals Baptist Church. First thing he did was join the Bible class for singles.
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Shirley Keene remembers him sitting in the front row, Scriptures in his lap. He seemed to take no notice of the women. "He had blinders on." She was single with two daughters. Her husband had left eight years earlier, but she hated the idea of divorce, couldn't imagine remarrying. She thought the new guy might be right for her girlfriend.
The group went to Longboat Key for a beach weekend. They went out to hear music. "Baptists don't believe in dancing," Keene says, "but singles do." In the eight years since her separation, she had danced only the fast dances.
Kemple asked her to slow dance.
As Kemple's daughter Bridgette puts it, Keene was the best thing to ever happen to her father. But from a biblical perspective, marriage seemed impossible. Matthew puts it plainly in 19:6. "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." Keene turned down three proposals.
Kemple, the Bible student, combed chapter and verse for exemptions. Paul suggests a rare loophole in 1 Corintheans 7:15: "If the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace."
To render that applicable, Kemple displayed the disputative dexteriousness of a Philadelphia lawyer. But he won his case. Keene got her decree.
"Terry met me at the courthouse."
They've been married 20 years.
• • •
She believes her husband has been led by God. She joined his picket line when he led a protest of a bikini bar in Valrico. She even played a joke on Joe Redner, Tampa's strip club impresario, when he stopped to check out the picket line.
"I brought him a sign. I said, 'Here you go, sir.' "
She likes to have fun. She tells her husband, "You need to loosen up."
"Terry's heart just wants people to do what's right," she says. "Who am I to tell him? I just pray for him."
She believes, as he does, that children should have mothers and fathers, that homosexual marriage can never provide that.
Kemple has softened in his second marriage. He no longer clangs broadswords with his daughter Bridgette.
"Now," he says, "it's more like Olympic fencing."
Bridgette thinks he's still evolving, learning to listen.
Part of her agrees with her father, part of her doesn't. "I don't know if we'll ever totally understand each other. But I understand what he's trying to do, and I'm glad he has something he really believes in. It's not fair to young people to let them think that gay marriage is an easy lifestyle choice."
No family gets a pass from the moral dilemmas that shake the world. Everyone is left to find his or her own answers.
That's an absolute truth.
At a reunion of Shirley's family, one relative confided to her his agony over his gay daughter. She had decided to have a baby by in vitro fertilization.
"But you know," the father said, "I still love her."
"Of course you do," she said. "You'll always love her. That doesn't change."
John Barry can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2258.