If ever there were a person who embodies Gandhi’s famous dictum that “you must be the change you wish to see in the world,” it is Colleen Kelly. She is a gentle, warm and sincere person who exudes a loving spirit to all who come in contact with her. She is a graduate of the University of Scranton, a mother of three children, and has been a peace activist her entire adult life.
Colleen is a family nurse practitioner working at a Montefiore Hospital school-based health center at Evander High School in the Bronx—a school with over 4,000 students, many of whom are disadvantaged urban teens. In that job, she is a model of how an adult Catholic should model “faith-in-action”. She treats her patients with kindness, respect, and dignity. In a very depersonalized, mass society social environment, she lets her patients know that someone is listening—that someone cares.
In the 1990’s, Colleen participated in many peace actions in New York city, including pushing her child in a stroller every year for the Pax Christi Metro New York annual Good Friday Stations of the Cross. She was also involved with actions around witnessing at the U.S.S. Intrepid, and especially the annual commemoration of the El Salvador Martyrs every year at St. Xavier.
In the mid 1990’s, Colleen was one of the co-founders of the Ita Ford Health Clinic in Manhattan, along with Miriam Ford and Tim Nolan. The clinic was founded in recognition that the free-care health system was inaccessible to immigrants and to the poor, who had difficulty navigating the bureaucracy and paperwork required. Collaborating with the Little Sisters of the Assumption for space, the trio of nurse practitioners provided free care to those that came to them. The clinic struggled for funding, it struggled with scheduling, but it never lacked patients to care for.
After September 11, 2001, the clinic changed its name, and Colleen Kelly’s life changed forever. Colleen Kelly’s brother William Kelly Jr. (Bill) worked for the Bloomberg organization in both Princeton and New York City. On September 11, 2001, Bill attended a meeting at Windows on the World, located in Tower One of the World Trade Center. He died when the building collapsed as a result of a terrorist attack. Colleen could have chosen the path of many Americans, and turned her grief and anger into a cry for vengeance, but she chose the opposite path: she chose to bear witness to the Christian mandates of peace and forgiveness.
In late 2001, Colleen became a part of the “Walk for Healing and Peace” which went from Washington, D.C. to New York. There she connected with several other individuals whose family members died in the attack. Along with Colleen, this group felt the call to live out their Christian faith, and profess that peace and forgiveness must be the only response to violence.
In January of 2002, Colleen joined with three other family members in a delegation to Afghanistan to witness the effects of U.S. military action in the country. The trip was sponsored by Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange. Colleen and the other members of the delegation became voices that expressed the truth that far from being a resolution to the violence of 9/11, American military action was being used to help recruit more people into lives of fanaticism and terrorism. The trip also motivated the group to band together and create a formal organization as a means of making their voices louder. With help from the Fellowship for Reconciliation, Peaceful Tomorrows was inaugurated in February of 2002.
One of the most compelling things about Colleen’s story, however, is the manner in which all this work and witness did not alter her day-to-day life. Rather than become a full-time peace activist, Colleen continued to work at her job with Montefiore, and serve at the newly named “Ita Ford-William Kelly Jr. Health Clinic” on the weekends, all while raising her three children. Nonetheless, when the Bush administration started beating the drums of war and blaming Saddam Hussein for 9/11, Colleen threw herself into what amounted to full-time advocacy to prevent war: “Not in our Name” became the rallying cry for her and for Peaceful Tomorrows. She attracted enough attention that Tom Brokaw interviewed her for NBC Nightly News.
Far from being a story about the past, Colleen’s Christian activism continues to this day. In a testimony to the power of forgiveness and reconciliation, Colleen makes regular visits to the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and the ongoing military tribunal, as a means of trying to raise awareness of the U.S. government’s conduct in imprisoning and trying suspects of the 9/11 attacks. To quote from the Peace Tomorrows website:
The members of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows never wanted an institution like Guantanamo, nor the black sites that predated it, to exist. From our founding we have searched for understanding about the root causes of terrorism and supported honest inquiry into the causes of the 9/11 attacks. We seek to promote human rights and dignity where American foreign policy has worked against both.
Colleen’s witness is not just public, it is also personal. In 2012, she co-wrote a Lenten Reflection booklet with her then teen-aged daughter Bronagh, “From Ashes to Resurrection, Death to New Life: Lenten Reflections for 2012.” It was published by Pax Christi USA. As compelling as the reflections are, even more compelling is listening to Colleen describe the real push and pull of working with her daughter, and getting the latter to make deadlines, reflect on the trauma of losing her uncle, and tie it to her newly forming adult faith formation.
The project came about after Pax Christi USA recognized Colleen and her work with Peaceful Tomorrows in 2011, when they named her the 2011 Teacher of Peace Award recipient.
Colleen’s personal witness to others was also evidenced in the return from her last trip to Guantanamo Bay. After a tiring multi-day trip, Colleen drove 3 hours the next day to help a friend with their hospital appointments. There are countless examples of her indefatigable efforts to let her love for others, the stranger, the disenfranchised, and the oppressed shine forth. Colleen witnesses on the big stage for all to see, in hopes that of helping the Holy Spirit transform this world, but just as importantly is the way she provides a living example in her private, everyday life, witnessing to one person at a time.
The Paulist Center has bestowed the Isaac Hecker Award on some extraordinary people. We assert that Colleen Kelly is just such an extraordinary person precisely because of the way that she lives the same kind of life of many of the Paulist Center members: working a full-time job, raising children, attending to family and friends, and then going out of her way to witness to the enduring power of Christ’s peace, to the transformational effect of forgiveness, and the omnipresence of incarnation within us all.
Isaac Hecker Award Nomination submitted by Vincent and Margaret Rocchio