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For chaplain, being in hard spots is what it's about


For chaplain, being in hard spots is what it's about

May 23, 2005      

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. (UMNS)—As an 18-year-old “kid” in the Army during World War II, Orris Kelly had three life-changing experiences.

First, he was confronted with the horrors of Nazism when a friend who had been to the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau showed him pictures of countless dead bodies.

Second, he witnessed the devastation of war when he stood on the hill overlooking the ruins of Stuttgart, Germany.

And third, he heard God’s call in the voice of a friend who said, “You know, if I had the guts, I’d be a minister.”

Kelly found the guts.

His lifetime career as a United Methodist chaplain ended in the highest rank a chaplain can achieve in his branch of service—Army chief of chaplains.

He served as an Army chaplain for 26 years in the United States, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Germany. He was appointed by President Gerald Ford as chief of chaplains in 1975 and retired from the Army in 1979 as major general. He then served as associate general secretary for the United Methodist Division of Chaplains, Board of Higher Education and Ministry, until 1985, was vice president for Hospital Corporation of America until 1987, and returned to Kansas and served as pastor in local churches until retiring in 1989.

Today, he and his wife Charlotte live in Manhattan, Kan., and are active members of First United Methodist Church. At a dinner party at the home of United Methodist Chaplain (Col.) David McLean on post at Fort Leavenworth, Kelly sat down for an interview with United Methodist News Service.

Life-changing experiences

It was at the tender age of 18, while in Germany, that his life really changed, he says.

He was studying to be a civil engineer at the University of Kansas in the Army Specialized Training Program in 1944. While he was in basic training, his buddies went to fight in the Battle of the Bulge—the largest land battle of World War II, lasting from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 28, 1945. Kelly was sent to Germany after attending officer candidate school at Fort Benning, Ga.

“It was in Germany that it really struck me differently about life,” he says. “Number one was a friend of mine had visited Dachau and came out with pictures of these bodies. And it shook me to think that this Nazism could be so terrible, that people could treat people this way.

“I was an 18-year-old kid, you know. I wasn’t very smart, or I didn’t know what the world was all about yet.”

Then standing on the hills overlooking the piles of rubble in Stuttgart, he began to wonder, “How in the world are those people going to recover from war? There must be a better way to live life than that.”

The final nudge that sent him on his life’s journey into ministry came when a friend of his said, “You know, if I had the guts, I’d be a minister.”  

“You never know what’ll strike you, and that sentence along with these other things really hit me. When I came home, I started to think about it. That’s kind of the formative part of my going into the ministry.” 

Being in the hard spots

Reflecting on his long career, Kelly says his favorite ministry was during his time at the military’s Religious Retreat Center in Berchtesgaden, Germany.

“I ran the retreat center in Berchtesgaden, Germany, for three years, 1966 to 1969, and as far as ministry goes, that was my favorite,” he says. More than 13,000 people a year visited the retreat center. “That was a very shaping time because people came down there, they were often tired, and they had a chance to get away and really think about their life. 

“In the Army, any military, you’re so close to the people that you either grow together or you ignore each other, and you can’t hardly ignore each other in some of the tough times in life. The retreats were great for that.” 

In Vietnam, Kelly served with the 4th Infantry Division. “My service in Vietnam was probably as critical as anything that I did,” he says. As division chaplain, he was working with the chaplains who were “in the boondocks, living in slush and mud and everything else.”

“I think the church has to be in the hard spots of life with people,” he says. “If the church can’t be in the hard spots of life with people, then we’re not doing our ministry as we ought. Being with soldiers in those hard spots, like Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq or wherever, is a truly great ministry—not easy, but really great.”
He remembers flying by chopper into a base once and finding a kid sitting with his head down in a bunker.

“I crawled in the bunker with him and said, ‘What’s the matter?’ Well his friend had just gotten killed.  He hadn’t been in Vietnam very long, and all of a sudden the enormity of what death was about struck him for the first time. He realized he might not make it out of there. This is what these kids were facing, and that’s why they need the church.”

Kelly feels one of the most crucial ministries he performed during that time was helping soldiers in 1969-70 get ready to go back home to hostile communities that did not support the war.

“The Catholic priest and I met every morning at 6:30 with all the soldiers that were heading home, just to help them make the transition. One of us would get up and talk to them a little bit about how God is with them regardless. That was our simple little message, and then we had communion with them.”

For communion, the chaplains divided the soldiers into Protestants and Catholics. “Every morning, almost every soldier took communion with us. That was a very significant thing as far as we were concerned; it really meant a lot to us and, I hope, to them. Maybe it helped them make the transition to go back home.”

Kelly also faced those who were hostile to the war and to the church’s role in the military. Often clergy who are not in the military find it hard to understand the need for chaplains, he says.

‘Nobody likes war’

When he was at the Board of Higher Education and Ministry, Kelly remembers talking to a group of British Methodists clergy one day when one of them stood up and said, “Why didn’t you group of chaplains just stand up and stop the war in Vietnam?” 

“You know, they were anti-Vietnam. Well who’s for war? Nobody likes war. But I think that’s kind of the unrealism that some clergy have about what life is about. It’s not that you want war of course, but the church has got to be there. The church has got to be in the slums, the church has got to be in the tough spots of life with people, the church has got to be with the military just in the same way.”

While he was serving at the board, a United Methodist agency wanted to civilianize the chaplaincy and had prepared a paper to present to the General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly.

“They had no understanding of how the church has to be physically present in the middle of these kids when they are dealing with all this stuff—and not just the kids, but also the families,” he says.

Shaping the chaplaincy

Being appointed Army chief of chaplains “was a great honor,” he says. Chiefs are selected from the entire Army and sent to the president and Senate for confirmation.

“I was never a brigadier general,” he says. “I jumped from colonel to two-star (general). It’s a little bit daunting because here are all these guys you’ve worked with all these years, they’ve been your compatriots, (and) now all of a sudden you’re the chief of chaplains and, in a sense, their boss.

“Being chief of chaplains is I’m sure how guys who are elected bishop must feel,” he says. “All of a sudden they have this tremendous responsibility over clergy that they’ve known over the years.”

As chief of chaplains, Kelly says his job was to help make the Army understand how religion is an important part of being in the military. “What you’ve got to do is understand that the chaplaincy is a system, and the system has to work for religion.” 

In that role, Kelly says he also helped shape the educational system to improve the professionalism of the chaplaincy. 

“The chief of chaplains has the opportunity to impact the Army through the chaplaincy by reshaping how we prepare clergy for that particular job. It was a great four years. I was young—I was chief at 49, had to retire at 53 because it’s a four-year appointed tour. I would have liked to have had eight years to accomplish more.”
In demand

A great part about being a United Methodist chaplain is that “we are not precluded from serving anybody,” Kelly says. “We will take on anything and anybody.”

Chaplains who can’t give their congregations communion will invite the United Methodist chaplain to their service once or twice a month to serve communion, he says.  United Methodist chaplains also can do baptisms in place of other chaplains whose faith traditions might not recognize the sacrament.

“That’s why Methodist chaplains are really in demand,” he explains. “I enjoy when we go to church and our pastor stands up and says, ‘Anybody that is here in this church can come up and take communion with us.’ Because that’s the way we are. I think that’s a great part of Methodism that sometimes we don’t think about.”

Kelly says another great thing about chaplains in the military is “we don’t see each other as members of a particular denomination or faith.

“You don’t make your friends from just the Methodists,” he says. “It depends on the personalities, the individuals. Some of my closest friends were Catholic priests, rabbis or very fundamental Church of Christ individuals. 

“Those kinds of relationships are just invaluable. You can’t measure them.” 

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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