The Authorized Biography of John Joseph Kelly, Champion of Social Justice
By Thomas Huening
John Joseph Kelly, the quintessential Good Samaritan, the quintessential progressive Christian, a progressing spirit, and a champion of social justice, changed the lives of thousands of people in need first as a devoted Catholic priest, then as a champion of the poor and a father figure to troubled minority youth, and finally as a saint to San Quentin inmates whose souls he saved one by one.
This intriguing scenario sets the stage for the authorized biography of a true hero who helped those cast aside by society. This humble man was true to the historical Jesus possessing traits of St. Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, and Mahatma Gandhi, but embarrassed by these comparisons. Kelly, a spiritual superstar, was a role model for anyone wanting to make a difference in their own community or on a grand scale in today’s confusing Coronavirus-infected and racially torn era. When he died in 2019 at age 90, thousands who knew him recalled his credo, “We need to take what God has given us, discover it and use it for justice and good.”
Father Kelly, tall and lanky with close cropped hair, one whose eyes displayed an alert intelligence, did exactly this when he traded his Catholic collar for a work shirt in 1979 by dropping his cassock in dramatic fashion after his final mass to pursue “justice and good” for the next 40 years. While most priests never leave the Church unless forced to do so, Kelly had the courage of his convictions when he struggled with bureaucracy, hypocrisy, internal politics and processions, ultimately deciding he could help more people by being less faithful to Catholic dogma and do more as a lay person devoted to Jesus. Kelly then dedicated his life to others who had lost their way becoming instrumental in helping thousands of people, many homeless, who were hungry, providing food and shelter while making certain they had adequate clothing.
As the driving force behind Samaritan House in San Mateo, California, still in existence today, Kelly achieved these goals by masterminding volunteer efforts along with being a master at fundraising. He tirelessly advocated for helping youth escape the dangers of broken homes, drug problems and gang warfare, then became a true saint to lost, imprisoned souls at San Quentin prison through his late-in-life efforts in the area of restorative justice and social activism. He truly was John the Priest, John the Religious Reformer, John the Teacher/Educator, John the Youth Mentor, John the Homeless Advocate, John the Counselor, John the Health Clinic provider, and John the never-give-up proponent of social change. Kelly was a role model for progressive spiritual action.
Kelly’s mission of helping people in need while creating a community that helps people in need, along with his Samaritan House motto of “Fighting Poverty, Lifting Lives,” paid off triggering a featured article in the New York Times. Those like this author who knew him personally loved John like a brother since he was a true man of courage who gave his life to community service and thus, he will be a true inspiration to readers of all ages.
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“Fellow-healer John Kelly devoted his life to the physical, emotional and psychological healing of the socially and racially disadvantaged. His story inspires in these troubled times.” — Deepak Chopra
“I’ve been blessed to know John Kelly for 45 years. He has been one of the most influential treasures in my life and in the lives of people from all the different backgrounds where he traveled. John Kelly was a collector and influencer of people because he talked, supported and loved them. [He had] limited means except for his overflowing heart of love that he extended to all who he encouraged. John changed the lives of so many people that he [was] the ‘Godfather of the Peninsula.’ As a priest at Serra, a private counselor, a driving force of Samaritan House and in the last chapter of his life, counselor at San Quentin Prison, John profoundly impacted the very existence of those he encountered. Speaking for myself and my family, we are extremely thankful that we were honored to be his friend.” — Tom Brady, Sr.
“John Kelly lived his life helping Black and minority lives matter, ahead of his Christian church and ahead of the current social movement. John’s life story in The Quintessential Good Samaritan is a heartfelt template of racial fairness and equity. Kelly’s dedication to those in need and his compassion for all, lifted and inspired me and those around him who witnessed his extraordinary contributions to humanity.” — Susan Manheimer, former San Mateo and Oakland, California Chief of Police
“John Kelly was a true leader, with courage and commitment to help others help themselves. As John Calvin Maxwell succinctly stated: ‘To add value to others, one must first value others.’ John Kelly’s legacy will be his compassion; his devotion to the physical, emotional and psychological healing of the socially and racially disadvantaged is a beautiful model to guide us all through these uncertain and troubled times.” — Warren Blank, PhD, President, CEO, LeadershipGroup.com
About the Author
Thomas Huening was a Navy and TWA pilot, lawyer, CPA, commercial real estate investor and local politician. He hosted Spiritual Choices, a local TV program interviewing local and national spiritual leaders, including Bishop John Shelby Spong, and others with disparate points of view. He shares a restorative justice interest championed by John Kelly. Read more here.