Fr. Darrell Kelly, SVD
Mission Assembly Speech - Divine Word College
Martin Luther King and St. Arnold Janssen - what did these two men have in common?
"Each man had a dream; each man affected the world in profound and different ways. And their respective dreams can merge as one - just look at me," says Fr. Darrell Kelly, SVD.
As an African-American SVD, Fr. Kelly embodies the vision of King and Janssen. Ordained in 2005, he is a member of the Divine Word Missionaries in the United States Southern Province and an associate pastor at Notre Dame Catholic Church in St. Martinsville, LA.
On Wednesday, April 18, 2007, Fr. Kelly gave the Mission Assembly speech to a group of DWC students, staff, faculty and SVD's gathered in the lecture hall at the college. Looming over the podium, with a large portrait of St. Arnold Janssen on his right and one of Dr. Martin Luther King on his left, Kelly doesn't fit the image of a fledgling "baby priest," as he calls himself. An army veteran of Desert Storm, he received a degree in Criminology in 1983, and worked as a prison guard in the Mississippi State Penitentiary for ten years.
Though imposing in both physical size and background, Kelly's love for his ministry and fellow man is unconditional, tempered by a realism born of his life experiences and a healthy dose of humor. While working as a prison guard, Kelly says, "I reminded myself to stay in the Word - to remember that the prisoners are still my brothers, and children of God. I needed to go where they were, and meet them there."
Confirmed as a Catholic on Easter Sunday, 1996, at St. Gabriel's Parish in Mound Bayou, MS, Kelly's road to the Society of the Divine Word was almost accidental. But all along, he maintained the belief of his African American community that "God hasn't brought me this far, to leave me now." And though the SVD charism and mission appealed to him, Kelly jokes that the biggest obstacle to overcome was his grandmother's opposition. "She told me: you were born a Baptist, and you'll die a Baptist," he says, smiling.
In 1997, while at Divine Word College, Kelly developed a friendship with Sr. Anne Sedgwick, OSF, and Spiritual Life Coordinator, who put him in touch with some African American families in Dubuque. They welcomed him into their Baptist community and helped him feel more at home. "God always puts someone in your path to help you along the way," he says.
Kelly feels that his parishioners often put him on a pedestal and credit him with having the answers to life's difficulties. "How," he asks, "can I ever be prepared for the funeral of a six-month-old baby, or a murder-suicide? Sometimes the only thing I can do is to be there, to listen and act as a sounding board." Strong faith and the love of parishioners are crucial in his pastoral work. "As an SVD missionary, I minister to them, and they to me," he says. "My dream is to be the best SVD, parish priest and person that I can be."
Kelly emphasizes that both Martin Luther King and St. Arnold Janssen believed that every living person needs respect. Linked by a special grace, or "charism," they have each used this gift for the sake of others and the Kingdom of God.
Dr. King's legacy, he says, "maintains that we should not change the culture, but rather, walk into it with open eyes." And today, there are 6,000 SVD members immersed in the cultures of 70 countries, carrying on the legacy of St. Arnold Janssen.
"It's up to us and the Holy Spirit," says Fr Darrell Kelly. "What are you going to do to carry on the legacy?"