Advertisement
  1. News

When a pastor's faith faces the ultimate test

Hannah Kelley, here with little sister Sadie, was accidentally shot in her father’s church.
Published Mar. 5, 2012

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.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Reynaldo Figueroa-Sanabria, accused of stabbing and killing John Travlos and Germana Morin aboard their houseboat in 2013, testified on his own behalf at his murder trial in Pinellas County this week. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    It took the jury about four hours to find Reynaldo Figueroa-Sanabria guilty. Next they must decide whether to send him to Florida’s death row.
  2. Harold Fritz, 75, was awarded the nation's highest and rarest honor, the Medal of Honor, for his actions in 1969. The Army lieutenant saved his platoon during an ambush in the Vietnam war. He spoke to students at Farnell Middle School in Tampa. MARLENE SOKOL  |  Times
    Harold Fritz wanted to talk about teachers’ salaries and education. The kids wanted selfies with one of the 71 living recipients of the nation’s highest honor.
  3. PDQ's new Trinity location features a self-serve sauce bar with seven signature sauces perfect for dipping chicken tenders. Courtesy of PDQ
    Both chains are expanding locally and held grand opening celebrations this month with giveaways and free food.
  4. Casey Cane has resigned as chair of Pinellas County’s Housing Finance Authority in the wake of a Tampa Bay Times story about his failure to disclose an arrest for a financial felony when he was 19. He also serves as a Palm Harbor fire commissioner. Casey Cane
    Casey Cane failed to disclose his arrest for a financial felony in 2006. He said he didn’t think he had to reveal that information.
  5. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor speaks to about 75 people Tuesday at a city conference on innovation and collaboration. (City of Tampa photo by Janelle McGregor) Janelle McGregor
    City Hall brought together startups and the nonprofits that nurture them for a discussion of possible ideas to improve city operations and service.
  6. Scott Purcell, a senior geophysicist with GeoView, left, and Mike Wightman, president of GeoView, use ground-penetrating radar to scan a portion of King High School campus in search for Ridgewood Cemetery. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    Preliminary answers from the ground-penetrating radar could come as soon as next week.
  7. A federal judge gas stayed the Nov. 7 execution of death row inmate James Dailey, 73, for the 1985 murder of 14-year-old Shelly Boggio. Left: Dailey at his 1987 trial, where he was convicted and sentenced to death. Middle: Dailey in 1993, when he was again sentenced to die. Right: The most current photo of Dailey on Florida's Death Row. Tampa Bay Times
    Dailey was set to be put to death Nov. 7. A judge ordered his execution to be postponed to give his attorneys time to present their claims. But the state can appeal.
  8. Markeith Loyd, suspected of fatally shooting a Florida police officer, attends his initial court appearance Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, at the Orange County Jail, in Orlando, Fla. Loyd spoke out of turn and was defiant during the appearance on charges of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend. He was injured during his arrest Tuesday night following a weeklong manhunt.
    The same jury found Loyd guilty last week of first-degree murder in the fatal shooting 24-year-old Sade Dixon outside her home in 2016.
  9. The new owner of a dilapidated mobile home park on Gandy Boulevard has sued the city of Tampa over a record-setting fine levied against the property for a massive tree removal in August. [CHARLIE FRAGO | Times]
    A Gandy Boulevard mobile home park owner is suing the city of Tampa over a record $420,000 fine .
  10. Dashboard camera video shows a Tampa police cruiser pursuing Dusharn Weems through a parking lot. A second later, Weems is fatally injured when the car strikes him. Courtesy Haydee Oropesa
    The family of Dusharn Weems, 23, claims an officer intentionally struck him after he was spotted driving a stolen car.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement