After being arrested at age 14, Donald Kelly knew something needed to change in his life.
An immigrant from Jamaica and the son of a hardworking mother who held multiple jobs to make ends meet, Kelly had been instilled from a young age with values like showing respect, being honest, working hard, and avoiding alcohol and drugs.
Yet, growing up in a rough neighborhood, Kelly found himself now being chased and arrested by the police.
The fiasco began when Kelly and his friends were loitering on the street, goofing off as teenagers do. “The neighbors in the neighborhood thought we were breaking into [a man’s] house,” Kelly says. “He came outside and he chased us, and I got caught. I was arrested that evening. . . . I was booked and released back to my mom, and I was put on house detention.”
Kelly remembers, “Being a strict Jamaican mother, she said, ‘You're grounded for life.’ So I was grounded forever. Pretty much that was my prison—home.”
Finding the Church
While under house detention, one of Kelly’s friends, Dane, invited him to a scout meeting and to play basketball at an LDS Church. “I blew him off,” Kelly says, “but then he reminded me and invited me again, and I took him up on it.” His first time attending an LDS Church was Easter Sunday 1999, and it was a general conference weekend. After that first experience, Kelly remembers, “I had all these questions and [my friend] said, ‘I have two friends for you,’ and introduced me to the missionaries.”
Soon after taking the missionary discussions, Kelly knew he wanted to be a member of the Church. His mother, however, had reservations about him being baptized. “My mom wasn't interested in the Church but didn't have a big deal with me going to church,” Kelly says. “She knew it was right—a good thing for me in my life,” Kelly says. But in Jamaica, people generally don’t get baptized until later in life.
So when Kelly approached his mother about getting baptized, she told him to wait until he was 18. But after further conversations and persistence on Kelly’s part, she lowered the age to 16.
Shortly after Kelly’s 15th birthday, the young men and many of the members in the West Palm Beach Ward came together to fast for Kelly, and the next time he asked his mother if he could get baptized, she agreed. “That gave me a huge, huge testimony of fasting—that if you have something you bring it to the Lord. He'll help you,” Kelly says.
But officially joining the Church was only the beginning of the struggles Kelly would face regarding his faith and family.
Losing a Home
Kelly vividly remembers the night his stepfather became so abusive toward his mother that he wondered if she would live until the morning. As a young teenage boy, Kelly felt helpless even as he rushed to help his bruised and bleeding mother.
After that night, his stepfather was put in jail and his mother missed days of work recovering from her injuries. “I remember . . . coming home seeing the fluorescent orange paper on the door, and you knew what it was because you've seen it before in the neighborhood. Someone's getting evicted—and that was us. I knew things were rough, but not that bad,” Kelly remembers. “We threw everything in a small storage unit, and my mom, brother, and sister went to live with one of my cousins on the other side of town, and I stayed with another relative [who lived along] the busing route to my high school.”
Unable to find rides, Kelly stopped attending seminary, and one of his close friends in the Church, Andrew, quickly realized something was wrong. Kelly says, “[Andrew] just pulled it out of me, and I told him what was going on—that we were evicted and that our family was separated and I was staying with my cousin in the laundry room and sleeping on the couch. He said, ‘Well, you know, we're already like brothers. I think my parents would be fine with you coming and staying with us.’” For a year Kelly lived with this LDS family, becoming just like another sibling in this family of nine. "I'm grateful for them, being my second family.”
Struggles with Race and the Priesthood
During this time, Kelly began to learn more about the Church and its history, and questions quickly began forming in his mind regarding race and the priesthood.
“I remember that really hitting me. That was the one time I started to think, ‘Woah, is something wrong with the Church?’” Kelly says. “I had good leaders at the time who gave me good mentorship and guidance and taught me to study the scriptures, to go and get answers. So I read the Bible and I read the Book of Mormon and I would study. . . . [I] came to know that it was true, but it's still in the back of your mind. The questions came further on my mission.”
Kelly was called to serve as a missionary in Detroit, Michigan, and people quickly realized he looked different from most missionaries, which prompted questions. “How do you tell someone that—why they couldn't have the priesthood?” Kelly asks. “How can I go out every single day and tell people that this is the church for them when no one looks like them? . . . I knew that this was the church of Jesus Christ. I knew it was restored. But there are things that I didn't understand, and I can humbly say it did bring me to question certain things. ‘Is this the right place for me? Is this correct? How come blacks couldn't have the priesthood?’ It brought me to my knees a lot. . . . I had to gain my own answers, and I can testify to you that I know without the shadow of a doubt, that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been restored.”
Little did Kelly know those struggles and doubts he faced on his mission would prepare him for becoming a bishop at only 31 years old.
Becoming a Bishop
“Being an African American, black bishop, you get that question,” Kelly says. When people come to Bishop Kelly with their own questions, he empathizes, saying, “talking with them, it's—I see myself again, being that kid. . . . [Many of their questions] I really don't have answers to, and I think that's one of the interesting things with life. We don't get answers with everything. Sometimes we have to put our foot in the dark, and we step one step at a time.”
But that doesn’t mean the pain, frustrations, and struggles have ended for Kelly. He still experiences uninformed comments, degrading ideas, and racism from members of the Church. In fact, the friend who introduced Kelly to the gospel left the Church because of false doctrines and harmful views that were being taught about race and the priesthood, even following the publication of the Church’s official essay on the topic. “Not seeing Dane come to church, it was really hard for me to figure out how I was going to get to church,” Kelly says. “But I knew it was right—I knew deep down it was right, so I kept going.”
He continues, “I can tell you that the thing that kept me going was just getting on your knees and praying, and knowing that Jesus is the Christ, that He truly did die for my sins, and He truly did make a way,” Kelly says. “It makes sense to keep going with the testimony of Jesus Christ that I do have, and that has guided me and forged a path and kept me going and led me to the opportunities in life that I have today.”
To all Church members—particularly those struggling with doubts, with imperfections of Church members, and with painful struggles regarding their membership—Kelly says, “Let's focus on Jesus Christ, let's focus on the Atonement, let's focus on the Restoration, and let's move forward. Let's change the culture. Because sometimes we get stuck in our ways, sometimes we get stuck in our culture, sometimes we get stuck in traditions, but we need to open our eyes and we need to see, and the only way that's going to happen is for people—of all races, of all creeds, all backgrounds—to come [together].”