By Stan Friedman
GRAND RAPIDS, MI (November 19, 2013) — The friends of First Covenant Church attender Jim Kelley, who was killed earlier this month when a car struck him while he was on his nightly run, paid tribute at his funeral last Saturday in a way he would have loved. They wore their running gear to the funeral at the church and then ran behind the hearse to the cemetery.
The obituary that ran in the local newspaper read, “Running attire is requested.”
Kelley’s wife, Teri, wanted to honor her husband, who had run some 30 marathons. She also wanted to make it easier for people to hear the gospel. “Teri’s desire was that the service itself be a real witness to Christ—that we pay attention to his friends’ presence, that we be sensitive to their presence, and seek to honor Jim but also point to Christ in appropriate ways,” says Pastor Craig Swanson.
Numerous friends from throughout the area attended. “Obviously, many of them were believers in Christ. But a good number of them were not,” Swanson says.
Since taking up running in the last 10 years, Kelley, 51, had become well known throughout the area. He had run the Indianapolis marathon just two days before he was killed November 4.
Friends said his determination, kindness, and generous spirit inspired them. His determination could be seen at the most recent Chicago marathon. He was on pace for a sub three-hour marathon, which would have been a first for him. But after twisting his ankle, he had to stop twice at medical tents.
They tried to pull him from the race, but Kelley was determined to finish. He came in at 3:18 for the run.
Kelley was more than a determined runner, friends say. They talk about the times that he walked alongside them on runs to encourage them to keep going. He also coached a charter school cross-country team to the state championship the past two years.
He was buried wearing his jeans and his 2013 Boston marathon shirt and medal along with a previous Boston marathon jacket. “In Boston this year, Jim was one of the main people communicating with the West Michigan running community on the safety of other runners,” Teri says. “While we sat in the hotel in Boston, he contacted every person he could think of who ran that race to make sure they were safe and had a place to go.”
At his funeral service, many of those who showed up in running attire came directly from a 10-mile run sponsored earlier in the morning by the Grand Rapids Running Club.
The celebration of life service and message were shaped around Isaiah 40:31 that declares, “They who put their hope in the Lord…will run and not grow weary.” A friend had shared the text with Teri earlier in the week.
After the people who attended dined on a lunch that featured hot dogs, chips, and a cherry dessert—among Kelley’s favorites—friends assembled to follow the hearse on the journey to the cemetery just over a mile from the church. Some 60 runners followed behind, and then other vehicles trailed them.
In addition to inviting guests to wear running attire, Teri had asked that Swanson not wear a suit and tie and that he wear running shoes. He wasn’t sure whether he would ride or run to the cemetery.
Swanson decided to join the runners. “My clothes weren’t quite right—and it was rather windy and cold—but the running shoes were on my feet,” he says. “It was a powerful experience. As I ran along, I both engaged in conversation and also listened.
“There were a few runners from church, but most of the runners represented the broader running community in Grand Rapids and even in West Michigan. As I entered into conversation with a few people, it was easy to pick up both on the affection with which they held Jim, but also the significant role that he played in a number of their lives.”
At the graveside, Swanson shared Scripture, a prayer, and a blessing from the Covenant Book of Worship. They recited the Lord’s Prayer together and sang the first verse of “Amazing Grace.”
“There was a great sadness, and yet, a real joy, sense of community, and a very real and powerful witness to Christ,” Swanson says.
One attender mentioned the surprise they felt when they walked into the unusual worship experience at the church. “Other non-believers were struck by the strength of faith and reality of Christ,” Swanson says.
Kelley is survived by his wife and two adult children.