Earlier this week, a man you likely never heard of passed away peacefully in Columbia, Tennessee. His name was Mike Kelley. He was a faithful Christian, a faithful husband, a loving father, a successful businessman, and one of my heroes. He was only 48.
The book of James tells us that “pure religion” is this: “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
Mike took these words to heart — deep into his heart. After five biological children (one tragically died as an infant), most families stop — especially when those kids are happy, healthy high achievers. But Mike and his wife Kittye understood that it is precisely the happy, healthy, and thriving families that are best-equipped to take risks — to reach out decisively to serve and love “the least of these.” And so they did. In addition to leaving behind his four biological children, he also leaves behind seven adopted kids, three with severe special needs.
These adopted children come from the most desperate circumstances in Liberia and China — their lives and futures saved by a man who loved those children more than he loved his own life. During one of his trips abroad, Mike caught a vicious and rare strain of malaria that nearly killed him, but still he went back — again and again — building his family until his home nearly burst at the seams with children he adored.
My wife met the Kelleys before I did. I had just left for Iraq, and they had only just moved into our neighborhood, but they immediately befriended my wife and kids. Mike made repairs around our house, they took my family with them on vacation, and they soon became our dear friends. They were instrumental in our own decision to adopt, and rejoiced with us when we brought home our beautiful youngest daughter from Ethiopia.
Mike was a leader in our small church community, and he was a servant to his friends. When others would be overwhelmed by the challenges of raising eleven children and managing a significant career, Mike was instead one of the most outward-focused, servant-oriented people I’ve ever met.
Late last fall, we were shocked to learn that a lengthy, nagging illness wasn’t merely the residual effects of malaria but instead a rare and aggressive form of cancer. As Mike fought for his life, I read Rod Dreher’s moving book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and was reminded once again of the power of community to comfort the broken-hearted. When we lost Mike, we lost a vital member of our own little community. May we comfort his family as he undoubtedly would have comforted ours.
As for Mike himself, the C. S. Lewis quotation that accompanied his death announcment says it all. From The Last Battle: “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. . . . Come further up, come further in!”
Rest in peace, Mike Kelley. You have finished the race.
The one and only.