When a pastor's faith faces the ultimate test

Hannah Kelley, here with little sister Sadie, was accidentally shot in her father’s church.

Courtesy of the Kelley family

Hannah Kelley, here with little sister Sadie, was accidentally shot in her father’s church.

It is Sunday morning, and the man of faith is working the room. Grinning, shaking hands, thanking people for coming. This is a pastor's life, and it is all Tim Kelley ever wanted.

From the corner of his eye, he sees Hannah waiting and watching. It is part of their routine. The pastor leaves early for church, his daughter invariably arrives late, and then she stands quietly in the reception area once services have ended.

As the crowd begins to thin, Kelley pulls Hannah in tight for the hug he knew she was seeking. He kisses her cheek, he tells her he loves her. And then she walks off, leaving her father's world behind.

In the narrowest of definitions, faith is a concept. It cannot be weighed, and it cannot be measured. It cannot be held, heard, seen or purchased.

It can, however, be tested.

• • •

If anyone in the coffee shop notices the easygoing man by the door whose eyes periodically fill with tears, they are polite enough to look the other way.

They know Tim Kelley here. He shows up most mornings after dropping his 6-year-old daughter, Sadie, off at school. He reads, he sips, he ponders. Of late, he also cries.

It has been three weeks since Hannah was shot in the head in a freak accident at Grace Connection Church in Lealman not long after her father kissed her cheek. It has been two weeks since life support was turned off, and one week since she was buried.

For Tim Kelley, 53, it has been the beginning of a new eternity.

"Last night we were sitting on the couch trying to get Sadie to go to sleep. She started talking about Hannah, and asking why," Kelley said. "How do you explain the sovereignty of God to an adult, never mind a 6-year-old? She said, 'God has had Hannah for a while now; can we have her back?'

"We said, 'Honey, Hannah is gone now, but she still loves you like she always loved you. You just won't see her again until we go to heaven.' That seemed to suffice for a while.

"And then we went off to bawl."

In more than 20 years as a pastor, Kelley has presided over funerals of every type. He has seen friends bury parents, spouses, siblings and children.

He has never been one to quote too heavily from Scriptures at these moments. It is more important, he says, to simply be available. To offer a shoulder to cry on. Lend an ear to listen. Knock on a door a week later to make sure all is well.

In that sense, the Kelley family has been blessed these past few weeks. Friends flew in from every corner of the country. Radio shows 3,000 miles away conducted on-air prayers. Stacks of letters arrived, and messages were delivered from five continents.

The story — a young woman shot in a church when a gun, thought to be unloaded and being examined by her fiance, was accidentally discharged in a closet and the bullet went through a wall before striking her — was too cruel to believe and too tragic to ignore.

And through it all, a man of faith has been forced to balance his devotion to God and his love for his daughter.

"One of those people trying to help said to me, 'God gave his only begotten son.' I said, 'Yeah, and he did so willingly. But I didn't.' " Kelley said. "I'm not God, I'm just a man. And I wouldn't have traded my daughter for anything. Not for anything.

"You can talk about all of the good that may come out of it, and I have seen much good, but let somebody else be the cause of all that good. Not my daughter. I'm too selfish. I don't want to give her up.

"But God didn't give me a choice. And I understand. I can honestly say I'm not bitter at anyone, God or man. I don't have any regrets concerning our time with Hannah. We loved her, and she knew it. There was never a child more secure in her parents' love."

He has not yet returned to the pulpit, and probably won't for at least a couple of more weeks. The rest of the world has moved on, and Kelley accepts that one day he will, too. For now, though, he chooses to grieve.

For the little girl who once wandered from her parents' sight in a Wendy's and was found sitting at another family's table, talking and eating their french fries.

For the messy teenager who made a big production out of buying a hamper at Target, and then left her laundry in piles on the floor as the hamper sat empty.

For the daughter who turned 20 five days before she was shot, and who mockingly complained when her mother held her face in her hands and told her how proud she was of her.

"I work very hard at being a Christian. She never had to work at it," her father said. "She was just Hannah. It was her demeanor, her character, her joyfulness, her simplicity. She was the most gullible kid in the world. People loved being around her because she was such a happy person."

For all the tears he has shed, Kelley is oddly calm when talking of Hannah's final hours. As if that is not how he will allow her life to be defined.

He talks of doctors giving her a 1 percent chance of surviving the first night and how she rallied for three days before complications set in. He talks of his wife, Peggy, never leaving her daughter's side, sleeping in a chair with her head resting on Hannah's bed in the ICU.

He talks of how, when life support was removed, Hannah died quietly within minutes. And how her older brother, Ryan, later ushered everyone from the room with the promise he would stay until they came to take Hannah away.

"We've had our (moments) with God and asked our whys, but it seems like those moments don't last long," Kelley said. "We had 20 years with Hannah. God had a plan for her life for 20 years. I wish it was 60 more years. I was looking forward to growing old and having grandkids. That was our dream. God didn't let it happen.

"You ask me how a man of faith processes this? I'm still trying to figure that out myself.''

John Romano can be reached at romano@tampabay.com.

When a pastor's faith faces the ultimate test 03/03/12 [Last modified: Monday, March 5, 2012 9:57am]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...