Taylor Kemp is one of Major League Soccer’s rising stars, but these days, the D.C. United back is playing with more freedom than ever before.
In this CSJ Conversation with managing editor Chad Bonham, Kemp talks about how his girlfriend (and now wife) Brittany helped him rediscover faith, how his new outlook on life has radically changed is approach to professional sports, and the importance of fellowshipping with other believers:
Chad Bonham: Tell me about your faith background.
Taylor Kemp: I grew up in a largely non-denominational Christian family where I went to a Christian elementary school. Growing up I went to a public high school. I’ve always had faith but Jesus was never an active part of my life. I had a surface faith. I believed in God but didn’t go much past that for a long time. My family was never very involved in church. We were calendar Christians. We just went to church on Christmas and Easter. So I believed in God, but that was about it.
Bonham: So what changed for you?
Kemp: Right before I went to college, I met Brittany who is now my wife. She was a very firm Catholic believer and had been her whole life. Faith was a much more active part of her life. We dated all through college long distance. I went to the University of Maryland and she went to a school in Colorado. I begrudgingly started to go to mass with her—partly just to please her, partly because I figured why not. I had very little intent to get a whole lot out of it. I was mostly just going because it meant something to her. I did that for about two years and I started to enjoy going. I was starting to get a lot more out of it. Brittany was trying to get me to go through the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) process. I finally decided to give it a shot just to see how it goes. At the least I knew I could learn a lot more about the Bible. So went through that program for eight months and it completely changed my life. I had a serious conversion during this time and at the end of the RCIA process, I was confirmed in the Catholic Church on Easter of 2016. During that year, a ton of stuff in my life changed. Most of that was in my own life. As I went through these classes and learned what it meant to be a Christian, I didn’t like a lot of it at first. I thought it was strict. I didn’t agree with it. I didn’t like it. But as I learned where the beliefs came from and where they were biblically based, I started thinking more about it and I started slowly making changes to my own life. I was extremely blessed during this time because every time I made a little bit of a life change, I was happier, I felt more at peace and I felt a tangible closeness to God. It was always a leap faith. I didn’t know if I fully believed it yet. I don’t know if I got it. But I just told God, “I’ll try it your way.” I had overwhelming peace that I never had before. I had happiness that I’d never had before. Through that year, my life changed. A lot of the things I cared about changed. A lot of the things I valued changed. Ever since then, I’ve been growing and growing and trying to liken myself to Christ. That’s become a central focus of my day. Obviously I don’t always do it well, but it’s something I strive to do as often as possible.
Bonham: How has your relationship with God impacted the way you approach soccer?
Kemp: My relationship with soccer is a really big part of my life changes. Soccer used to be much more of a stresser than a joyful thing. By the time I got into college, it wasn’t exactly fun anymore. It became a job. You have to succeed. You’ll pretty much do anything to keep playing and to keep getting better. It hasn’t been really fun since high school. That’s because I had soccer on a pedestal. I valued soccer over most anything else and certainly over my relationship with God. As I began to have a much more active faith with Jesus, I realized like so many things that God gave me these things. I didn’t earn the right to be athletic. I didn’t earn the right to have wonderful parents who financed my early soccer career and paid for me to have coaches and paid for me to go on these trips. I was born into a circumstance where it wasn’t hard for me to succeed. All of this came from God. All of this could be taken away by God. But he’s given me these things for a reason. I didn’t earn them. That doesn’t mean I didn’t work hard to get here, but I certainly didn’t earn the success I’ve had. I also came to the realization that soccer success isn’t as important to me as it used to be. If for some reason soccer was taken away from me, I’d be okay with that because I’d have to believe that was God’s plan for me and he had something else for me to do. That completely eliminated the stress of playing soccer for me. I started to enjoy it again. I started looking forward to going to practice. I started having fun again. I started playing much better. I’ve become a much better soccer player. There’s not a doubt in my mind about that. I’m freed up. I was handicapped by my desperation to succeed. After I took soccer off that pedestal, I was able to enjoy it. I was able to enjoy my teammates and my coaches more. Soccer was just more fun. My faith changed the way I looked at soccer, how I played the game and my beliefs about success and failure.
Bonham: What is your message you young soccer players?
Kemp: I care deeply about kids growing up in sports today. In today’s society, there’s way too much stress and pressure to succeed. Sports lose their essence. For kids who have faith and are striving to be good at athletics, I would tell them to enjoy what they’re doing. God gave them the ability to play that sport. Don’t get wrapped up in success of failure. Some will keep moving on. Some will not. God will take you in one direction or another. Have faith that His direction is the best thing for you. By striving too much for success, you’re not putting your faith in God. It’s good to have dreams and aspirations but don’t let those eclipse your faith in God. Don’t let your faith hinge on those things. Have faith in where you’re supposed to be and where you end up going. That will be the right place for you. Don’t let your worldly aspirations overshadow your faith.
Bonham: Is there a particular Bible verse or story that speaks to your current circumstance as a successful professional soccer player?
Kemp: When Jesus was losing some of His followers (John 6:67-69), He looks at Peter and says, “Are you leaving too?” And Peter says, “To whom should we go?” In other words, who else out there is better? That’s reflective of what I believe. Just because things don’t go a certain way doesn’t mean I should waver in my faith. There is no other answer out there besides God. It’s so easy to lose sight of that. I’m constantly fighting many worldly desires. It’s impossible to ignore. They’re out there—especially in the athletic world. They’re in your face all the time. It’s hard to ignore them. It’s hard to remind myself to keep God above things like desire for a bigger contract, desire for more publicity, desire for more attention from the fans or from the media, desire for more praise from my coaches. That’s stuff is always there, but I always have to remind myself that those things are never going to make me happy. They’re never going to bring me peace. They’re never going to bring me real salvation. In today’s world, especially for men, it’s hard to go against the trends. That was hard for me when I was a rookie. I was certain kind of person that all of my teammates liked and then I changed. That wasn’t received well. “Do you think you’re better than us now?” It’s hard to remind yourself that there are no other answers out there for happiness and peace than in a relationship with God. The answers aren’t in the world.
Bonham: What is the importance of accountability and community with fellow believers?
Kemp: A community is always important. That was always prevalent in the Bible. You need it to lead a healthy Christian life. You can’t do it alone. When RCIA ended for me that was hard because I needed to find other ways to surround myself with people I could talk to. That’s why I like having someone like (team chaplain) Shaun (Smithson) around in the team construct. It’s not easy to talk about a lot of this stuff out in the open in the locker room. It’s great if people can and it takes a lot of courage for people to do that. Sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t. The reason why FCA and people like Shaun are so important is because it creates a space for athletes that believe similar things to meet and talk. Any community is good for spiritual growth.
(Photos: Courtesy MLS Pressbox/DC United)