When Tommy Kelly was 23, his life was turned upside down when his father died from a heart attack.
A faithful Christian, his father had been a deacon and church treasurer and was the local magistrate. Kelly was amused when local lawyers, who had far more education than his father, referred to him as “judge.”
And Thomas H. Kelly Sr. was patriotic, having served in the Army right after the Korean War.
“His military experience had a tremendous impact on him,” Tommy Kelly said. “I came along about 10 years after he enlisted. We were very close.”
The senior Kelly also supported his son’s decision to enter the ministry.
“There was a big void there in my life when he died,” said Tommy Kelly, who was in seminary at the time.
At the church where he subsequently served, Kelly began to cultivate relationships with veterans who were about his father’s age.
“My heavenly Father showed me how He was going to help fill that void,” Kelly said of the veterans. “A lot of those men have taken the place of my father.”
Tommy Kelly, front row, right, pastor of First Baptist Church, Varnville, S.C., joins with military veterans honored at the church this spring. Also on the front row, from left are Phil Stanley, who fought in Vietnam; Frank McClure, a Korean War veteran; and Marvin Kinard, who served during World War II.
For the past 21 years, Kelly, who currently is the South Carolina Baptist Convention’s president, has continued to develop relationships with veterans at First Baptist Church in Varnville where he serves as pastor.
Ministry in the Low Country
When Kelly moved to South Carolina’s Low Country to lead First Baptist in May 1994, the church averaged about 75 in attendance. Today, attendance has more than doubled.
The pace of life is slow in Hampton County, where the population density is 37 people per square mile. Varnville’s population of 2,437 is second only to the county seat, also named Hampton. Two major factories in Varnville created most of the jobs there for years, but both are now closed.
“Even with industry closed down, there’s still a need for the church,” Kelly said. “They need it more in times of despair than in times of prosperity.”
First Baptist has remained healthy, raising nearly $800,000 for a new family life center and nearly doubling its staff since 1994.
While Kelly can enjoy such measures of success, he sees relationships as far more important.
“About 15 years ago, I had been in the office and was riding up town about 9:30 a.m. when most restaurants would quit serving breakfast,” the pastor recounted. “I found some men who were veterans drinking coffee. It became a habit to leave and go drink coffee periodically. Through those relationships I found out what was going on all over town.”
The visits kindled friendships that included hunting and fishing together. The life experiences of the coffee-drinking veterans, many of whom were not members of his church, were such that they would often use expressions that Kelly hadn’t heard since his father had said the same.
When Kelly asked the veterans for advice, there was no lack of opinions. His relationships with veterans in his church grew particularly deep, one of whom was Lloyd “Tootie” Griffith who had become a Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteer in recent years.
“At his funeral, I just broke down and wept,” Kelly said. “He was very close to me.”
Other veterans remain close to him today.
Marvin Kinard, 89, World War II
Marvin Kinard volunteered to serve in the Navy in 1943 when he was 17. During his two years, six months, 28 days and three hours of military service, Kinard served in a host of stateside administrative tasks.
“I am still somewhat living back there,” Kinard says of his military service. He married Sarah, his sweetheart, in January 1945 and left the Navy about a year later. They returned home where Kinard worked in his father’s grocery store before opening one of his own before going into wholesale food sales.
Upon his return, Kinard was active at First Baptist Church in Hampton where he mostly taught children. His commitment to his local church ran deep.
“In 1952, the store that I had opened, one Sunday morning it caught fire and burnt,” Kinard said. “I did not have any insurance. I just went to church.
“The merchants in Hampton came together and built it back in three weeks,” Kinard said.
About 12 years ago, Kinard and his wife joined First Baptist in Varnville where again they became active. Sarah died in February 2014. Kinard, now 89, though not as active in the past, still attends regularly.
“The church means everything to me now,” he said. “I go there to worship, for that reason alone.
“Tommy is an inspiration to me,” Kinard said of his pastor.
Frank McClure, 85, Korean War
When Frank McClure enrolled at Clemson University, it was his first time away from First Baptist Varnville, where he had attended since birth. He studied electrical engineering and subsequently spent 42 years in banking.
McClure reported for military duty with the Army on his 22nd birthday. Soon, he was in Korea near the 38th parallel providing communications support for commanders.
One night as the Chinese were aiming for the headquarters compound with 88mm high-velocity canons, McClure rolled out of bed into a commo (communications) trench, which he said was not deep.
“I had left my helmet in my jeep, which was parked in the headquarters tent,” McClure said. “Shrapnel and bullets were flying by my head. That was the closest I came to being shot.”
He returned to Varnville and to First Baptist, which had long been a “part-time” church. Worship services in town rotated between several churches.
After Varnville called its first full-time pastor, McClure’s involvement grew. He joined the choir and continues today. “I love to sing,” he said.
McClure’s admiration for Kelly is clear.
“I don’t know I’ve ever met a man who was more sincere in doing what the Lord wanted us to do,” McClure said.
When Kelly called McClure once for advice about a pressing matter, his advice was simple.
“A knee-jerk action is bad action,” he told Kelly. “Sleep on it. Don’t rush into anything.”
Phil Stanley, 71, Vietnam
Serving with the 25th Infantry Division, Phil Stanley was in the main combat area of the Tet Offensive during his entire time in Vietnam. Huey helicopters would deliver him and other troops on search-and-destroy missions.
“I always sat on the floor with my feet resting on the running board,” Stanley said. “I always liked to be the first one out. Just wanted to hit the ground first.”
On July 2, 1967, the helicopter dropped his crew in the wrong landing zone – in the middle of a Viet Cong camp.
“A rifle grenade hit my close friend and exploded,” Stanley said. “I ended up getting shrapnel from it.”
The Army awarded him the Purple Heart, but the physical wound didn’t compare to the emotional wounds.
“It really hurt me when we came back and our country was spitting at us and throwing rocks at us,” Stanley said of his arrival at Fort Ord in California. “When I got home in Hampton County it was a lot different from that. I got a wonderful welcome.”
Without his friends and church, Stanley said his transition back to civilian life would have been “impossible.”
“You have those nightmares, which I still have some,” he said. And he went through stages of suicidal depression.
Stanley spent his career in retail, and he and his wife have remained active at First Baptist, filling multiples roles through the years. “I can’t survive without our church,” he said. “We all have some rough times. They are there when you need them.”
And he loves his pastor.
“He’s just wonderful,” Stanley said. “He’s a brother in Christ.”
Finding father figures among veterans has served Kelly well.
“By sitting at the feet of these men, I have learned a great deal that I would never have learned in a seminary classroom,” the pastor said.
Kelly admires the loyalty the veterans show toward their country, community, jobs and families.
“They were very much like my father in their commitment to their country and their Lord,” Kelly said.
Much of the teaching has happened over morning coffee at a local fast-food restaurant. In jest, the men there call themselves the “Hampton mafia” because they “put a hit out on somebody every day.” Those “hits” can turn into visits, baptisms, weddings and funerals.
“The strength of the church is not what happens on Sunday morning when the doors are open, it’s what happens in the community and the world when the door is closed,” Kelly said.
And sometimes, it happens over a cup of coffee.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Jim Burton is a photojournalist and writer based in Atlanta.)