Pastor Kelly who lost his daughter in accidental church shooting hopes to help others

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - For three decades, he's led the congregation of the Grace Connection Church. But this year, he's only been back three times to preach. It's just too painful.

"I barely remember the first month of losing Hannah, it is a blur to us,'" said Pastor Kelley.

Hannah is his beautiful daughter who was shot just five days after her 20th birthday.

"We (referring to him and his wife) told her we loved her everyday. Everyday of her life. I think that was the last thing I said to her, that I loved her," said Pastor Kelley.

Less than 15 minutes after he uttered those words, his entire family's life came crashing down.

He had just finished his sermon when someone came running up and told him his daughter had been shot.

"When you lose a child, you don't get that attached to life anymore," said Pastor Kelley.

A parishioner, Pastor Kelley has openly forgiven Moises Zambrano, who accidentally fired the gun from inside a closet.

Zambrano joined Pastor Kelley at Hannah's memorial back in February.

Investigators said Zambrano had been showing the weapon to Hannah's boyfriend.

Hannah had been in the adjacent room when the bullet struck her. She clung to life for nearly a week, but then she died, taking a piece of her parents with her and also changing the pastor's perspective.

"The fear of death is absolutely out of my life," said Pastor Kelley. "

I have absolutely no fear of death. I want to be here for my family. I don't have a death wish, but the thought of going home and just being with my family, being with my daughter is now a pleasant thought to me."

The pastor has been on sabbatical. It has been a tough road and he needed time to gain hold of his emotions, including anger.

"Anger is a normal response. But God has pretty big shoulders, God made us human, he did not make us robots. He gave us parental love and that is a deep love and every parent knows it. And when a child is taken away, you don't understand, especially the way Hannah was, you don't understand why."

He's had to go back to the foundations of his faith these past few months.

"There are still people who come to our church and look for spiritual guidance, spiritual edification and that is my job. That is my role. That is my calling to do that for them. So, I am looking forward to coming back and teaching about the grace and the mercy of God," said Pastor Kelley.

And while Pastor Kelley has not been back on the pulpit, he's been helping with lessons of forgiveness and acceptance, reaching out to families who now walk in his shoes.

He heard about Sierra Johnson, a 17-year-old Manatee county teenager killed in a car accident on her way to a Christian rock concert in Orlando this past September. He met with her parents.

"I am not sure how I am helping them. I just want to make myself available to them. When this happened to us, we did not have anyone right there to help us walk through it," said Pastor Kelley.

He also reached out to Jesse Watlington's family through their pastor. Their 11-year-old son died after being struck by lightning during football practice.
 
"In a sense being a pastor, it's physician heal thyself. But, I don't care what you do for a living or what your call is. I have studied the bible for 30 years, but God made us parents and God made us human beings, everyone of us. When you take a child away from a parent at any age, and especially with what happened with our Hannah Grace, it is traumatic." said Pastor Kelley

He said he will also try and talk to Dorreen Boese.

Earlier this year, ACTION NEWS shared the single's mother story of losing her only child Deviny in a tragic boating accident.

"We want to try and help in our community. We want to help as parents, as a members of a church. God never wastes pain," said Pastor Kelley.

Below is more of Sarina Fazan's interview with Pastor Tim Kelley:

Sarina: Has there been anything that has helped?
 
Pastor Kelley: There is a community of people out there who have lost children.  They have actually helped us in our journey. They have told us what is around the corner. It's like a cliche that it's a journey, but it is a journey. Every day is different and it manifests itself differently.

It's been very helpful talking to parents through letters and conversations who have lost children. They can't really explain anything to you but they can tell you what to expect of yourself and how the process will be played out and how it will play out for them.

Every story is different and everyone grieves differently. Those are  the voices that have meant the most to us.

The book, "Sit down God, I am Angry" by Pastor R.F. Smith has also helped us very much. A woman gave it to us and out of everything we read that is the most helpful.
 
And, my wife and I both lean on each other. I mean, sometimes these waves of grief will come at the same time and sometimes we will trigger each other, but often times she will have bad moments and I will be strong and hold her and other times

she will walk in on me and will have to hold me.

It seems sometimes we are strong and weak at different times which I think is a blessing
 
Sarina: You also have another child, 7-year-old Sadie. It must be so difficult on her.

Pastor Tim Kelley: That is why we need to stay strong, for Sadie. My wife bears the brunt of helping little Sadie through this. Sadie is constantly talking to her mom about losing Hannah. She is still trying to process losing her sister. Sometimes, in grief like this that is a forgotten person, a sibling and they grieve differently especially in our case when there is a 20-year-old and a 6-year-old, (Sadie just turned seven this past September)  their relationship was something of sibling and maternal and there was a real bond between them..
 
And then to have the accident happen in church, and then not see mom and dad for a week because we are in ICU, and not being home and  seeing our family on t.v., it really took a toll on our little girl. 

We have decided to homeschool her this year and that is good it just seems the closest she can stay to mom. the better.  
 
But she has been an incredible source of strength for us too. This is just one of many stories, I was on the couch and my wife and I were both crying. Little Sadie came in and pushed me out of the way, and holds her mom and whispers in her mom ear,  mom, Hannah is in heaven. I thought what an angel that God brought to us. We have been blessed. We have been blessed.

Sarina: Pastor, I know this is a difficult question and one I even hesitate to ask. But, is there anger toward God?
 
Pastor Kelley: Anger is a normal response. But, God has pretty big shoulders God made us human. He did not make us robots. He gave us parental love and that is a deep love and every parent knows it.

And when a child is taken away you don't understand, especially the way Hannah was. You just don't understand why. I have had many angry moments with God and my wife has many angry moments with God.

But, on the other side of the coin, we are God's children even before you have earthly children. So, my daughter has a heavenly father and I was her earthly father. She left her earthly father and went to her heavenly father. He is the boss, He has the right to take his children home.

That does not mean I like it and I hope I am not ruining anyone's faith or anything. A lot of  people have said, "so much good has come out of your daughter's death." I am a pretty selfish guy. I would just as soon have my daughter back. I am happy for the good but I just as soon have my daughter back.
 
I have certain default questions I go to and I read in my bible that God is love. So I work from that base that God is gracious and that God is merciful and that everything works together for good for those who love God.  Now does that seem to fit my experience? No.

But I have to either accept that is my faith or that isn't my faith. That doesn't mean my emotions are not hurt or wounded. That does not mean I stop grieving just because I have submitted this over to God. This does not take away the feeling the pain and  the tears.

I have to trust that God knew what he was doing and he called my daughter home. He took her to a place that she is happy, where she is blessed, she is content and would not rejoin us if she could.

I have to think like this. If not the other road of thinking is a steep slope. God never wastes pain

Sarina: Will this change the way you preach?
 
Pastor Kelley: It already has. I have studied the bible for 30 years. But, I never really explored heaven. I spent a good ten weeks on the subject after the accident.
 
Sarina: You are on sabbatical, are you ready to come back?

Pastor Kelley: I believe I am ready to come back and start teaching the bible again. I will always have a frame of reference for the loss. There are certain parts of this building I have yet to go. But I will face my fears.

I know the loss and the heartache of losing Hannah that is undoubtedly going to be woven into my teaching and my preaching probably for the rest of my life. Because this is me now. It is part of me and if it part of me then it will come out of me.
 
There are still people who come to our church and look for spiritual guidance, spiritual edification and that is my job, that is my role, that is my calling, to do that for them.

So I am looking forward to coming back and teaching about the grace and the mercy of God, and telling them how much God loves them and how that applies in their life.
 
Sarina: How do you remember Hannah?
 
Pastor Kelly:  We haven't changed a whole bunch at the house her pictures are up everywhere. Her room is the same. Her clothes are still in the closet.  We haven't done anything there yet and we are not motivated to do anything there yet.
 
She is still very much a part of our lives. There is not an hour that passes that me and my wife and little Sadie don't think of her.

There's lots of tears and the sadness, sometimes it's oppressive and

other days it's not so bad. But truthfully, I don't even know how we functioned in the first four months.

It's like post traumatic stress. Your brain puts up these barriers and you don't even remember certain things. I have had conversations with people since then that we're standing next to me during that time and I don't even remember them standing next to me. 

I ask them were you even there and they look at me and say I was standing right next to you and I don't even remember seeing them. The whole thing, it is just blurry.
 
But Hannah is alive in our hearts, there are so many memories.

Hannah was with us for 20 years. We homeschooled her and she was barely out of our home. She loved our home and her moms cooking. We remember her walking through our home. We remember her innocence, her sense of humor. Our memories have not decreased if anything they have been more sharp and more precise than they ever were and that is what we hang on to.

Grief is hard. Its hard to map. It's hard to put it in a box. It's hard to say this is going to happen and it's going to get easier here. It gets a little easier and then it gets hard again and you have moments of of sparkles of joy but then the clouds move in pretty quickly.
 
It's a new way of living, there is a limp in your life that you never really get rid of.  It's never the same again, life has lost a little bit of its flavor.

Someone said to me, it's like our brain has been tattooed and you are never the same again.

It is comforting to know, we told her we loved her everyday. Everyday of her life. I think that was the last thing I said to her.

I just need to keep thinking that when my time comes, I am going to see my beautiful daughter.
 
 
 
 
 
 


 
 
 
 
 
 

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