“It was absolutely bizarre to me,” she said, “like you getting called to be a football player or an accountant.”
“I asked God, ‘Do you want me to blow things up?’ and then I saw on a Web site you could be a chaplain.”
She kept teaching, but on Sept. 11, 2001 — as the native New Yorker and her students watched television as the World Trade Center collapsed — “it was like a book had closed. I knew I was saying goodbye to everyone in the room.”
Kelly, who’s now 42, studied at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, concluding with clinical pastoral education work at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, one of the nation’s premiere burn facilities. She did chaplaincy work at the amputee clinic, which she called “great preparation for military ministry.”
She was offered a Navy commission in 2005 and worked two years at the Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton in southern California. Last year she moved to Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Va., assigned to a carrier air wing.
Lieutenant Kelly, a Presbyterian, is one of three chaplains assigned to the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, which suffered a fire last month and is being repaired in San Diego.
“It was a transformative experience to see how everyone came together to fight the fire, the determination and drive to beat this thing,” she said of her crewmates’ firefighting efforts. “We (chaplains) helped them in small ways, and we prayed with people. It’s nice to feel like you’re contributing in some way. Prayer obviously is very powerful.”
A highlight for Kelly before the fire necessitated returning to port was a joint exercise called Partnership of the Americas. While on shore leave in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Valparaiso, Chile, hundreds of sailors — Kelly included — donated a day in each community painting, gardening, ministering to seniors and playing with children.
“It was fun and it felt good to help others,” Kelly said, “and they could still have their fun in Rio, too.”
Kelly still marvels at the teamwork and professionalism it takes to run a flight deck, the second most dangerous job in the world, after fishing the coast of Alaska (too many people who fall overboard there can’t be rescued in time before the icy water kills them).
“When I go out (on the flight deck), I have to hold onto the scruff of someone’s jacket so I don’t fall off or get blown off by the jet wash,” she said. “I am very proud when I see these 19-year-olds orchestrate an airport crammed into a very small place.”
She adds: “I am in awe of those young people. Supporting them and their families — that’s why I’m here.”
An important part of her job is to work with sailors and their families to be in healthy relationships. “They can’t worry about personal problems on the flight deck,” she said. “I know I’m contributing to the safety of the entire ship.”
The hardship brought on by long deployments — little privacy, long hours, “no way to hop in your car and go get a pizza”— has the benefit of making sailors more open to the work of the Holy Spirit, Kelly said.
“I’ve worked with people with anger problems whose anger has gone away,” she said. “Many people have spiritual experiences (at sea). People have stopped smoking and given up drinking. There is transformation in their (personal) relationships. When broken people see themselves as God sees them, it is an inspiration.”
Some sailors become so hungry to hear the word of God “they sit through three or four services, Protestant and Catholic,” she said.
Kelly has been staffing a General Assembly booth for the Presbyterian Council for Chaplains and Military Personnel, a group that she said has mentored her during this, her second career.
“They are chaplains to the chaplains,” she said with a smile.
She encourages other Presbyterian clergy to consider following her into the military.
“The thing about being a chaplain is, it has to be in response to a call,” she said. “If it is a call, it will be way better than anything you can think of yourself.”