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Longtime pastor Bob Kelly retires from Peoples Church after decades of service

Retiring after 25 years, Bob Kelly, the pastor at Peoples Church in Bemidji, is leaving behind a legacy of service solidified by the countless lives of those in need he's aided.

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Bob Kelly is retiring from his role at Peoples Church in Bemidji, which he founded in 1998 as a church and shelter for the homeless and anyone in need of a meal and a warm place to stay.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — When Janis Hawk was just 12 years old and she and her sibling ran out of food while her parents were gone, there was only one person she knew she could go to for help — Bob Kelly.

Kelly, the pastor of Peoples Church in Bemidji, didn’t ask her any questions about why she needed the money, he knew her family struggled. Instead, he gave her some cash and asked if she needed anything else.

“I will always remember that moment,” Hawk said, “Bob was the one person I knew that would always help me.”

With the money Kelly had given her, Hawk was able to get food for herself and her five younger siblings, but for her and so many other members of the Bemidji community, Kelly’s impact has extended far beyond simple acts of kindness.

Since founding Peoples Church in 1998, Kelly has spent over two decades working, serving and preaching in Bemidji, often to some of the most disadvantaged members of the community.

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As a ministry focused on service, Peoples Church has become well known in the area as not just a church, but a shelter for those who are homeless and a place for a warm meal and friendly conversation without the imposition of judgment.

“He’s always been about feeding his community, educating his community and making sure that everyone feels accepted and loved and safe,” Hawk shared. “Bob Kelly doesn’t only preach his gospel, he truly lives it.”

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Founded by Bob Kelly in 1998, Peoples Church is a ministry focused on service and community.
Pioneer file photo

While the journey of Peoples Church has rarely been easy, Kelly steered it through thick and thin and faced each challenge head-on. Now, after 25 years at its helm, Kelly is retiring.

Even though he’ll no longer be running Peoples Church, the legacy of Kelly’s work remains and has been solidified through the countless lives he’s touched along the way.

“He was called to the ministry and operated out of love for this community,” shared Audrey Thayer, who’s worked with Kelly and Peoples Church for over 20 years. “There are so many people he’s uplifted. ... This community owes that man so much love, compassion and caring and a huge 'thank you.'”

A road to faith

Kelly was born in Georgia in 1949 to a family in the army. His childhood saw him towed across the country, from Alaska to Colorado, and even a year-long stint in France.

But his earliest memories of Georgia in the 1950s have stuck with him, primarily as memories of poverty and segregation.

“I can remember how it was,” Kelly shared. “I remember the drinking fountains for whites only, (and) just seeing rural poverty. I’d never seen things like that before.”

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Since then, and throughout his life, Kelly has maintained a distinct consideration and compassion for people experiencing hardships of every kind.

Kelly’s introduction to faith, however, wouldn’t come until he was a young adult.

After becoming a roofer, a trade he would continue for decades alongside his pastoral work, Kelly was befriended by a group of fellow workers who he would later describe as “Jesus Freaks.”

They were a part of a decentralized, counter-culture Christian movement that emphasized service and for Kelly, it was their commitment to helping those in need without judgment or expectation that set an example for his later work.

“It was like they were shepherds looking for people in trouble who were having a hard time,” Kelly explained. “That’s how I was discipled. They’d just let people in who needed help, that’s what they taught me.”

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Bob Kelly signs his daughter Margaret's marriage certificate in 2013 after the Freedom to Marry Act allowed Margaret to legally marry her partner.
Pioneer file photo

When Kelly first moved to Minnesota with his wife Carol in 1972, he had not yet become a pastor. It wasn’t until a family emergency placed their son in the hospital that he felt what some people might label a "call," though he doesn’t describe it that way himself.

“For me, it was an overwhelming sense of the presence of the Creator and Jesus,” Kelly said. “That’s one way of understanding everything. It opens our eyes to what other people have always been experiencing.”

Peoples Church

After having attended seminary on and off for 11 years while roofing and raising his family, Kelly became ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

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His first church was near Red Lake where he spent just over a decade before moving to Bemidji in 1998 and founding Peoples Church.

With the help of his wife, Kelly began building a church known for welcoming people from all walks of life. Hawk remembered that Peoples Church felt particularly welcoming for Bemidji's Native American community.

“Bob was the first white person that I met that truly cared about Native Americans and their culture,” Hawk shared. “He wanted to spread the message of Christianity without pushing our culture aside.”

Alongside this welcoming atmosphere, Peoples Church maintained a focus on serving its community that would only increase over time.

“I always wanted to be a traditional church, just one that was doing things in a different way,” Kelly said.

One of Peoples Church's most notable ministries, serving as a shelter for the homeless, began around a year after the building first opened its doors.

“It was a Wednesday night in January, 20 below zero. I had an evening service with maybe eight or 10 folks. Some of them didn’t have a place to go,” Kelly explained.

Seeing the need, Kelly was suddenly overwhelmed by a need to act and he offered to let them stay in the church overnight.

“I felt that this was something important. I didn’t understand what it was, but I said to them, ‘Well, why don’t you just stay here for the night,’” Kelly said, “and that was that.”

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Peoples Church isn't simply a church, it has also served as a homeless shelter to those who need a meal and a warm place to stay.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

Since that evening in 1999, Peoples Church has sheltered hundreds of individuals and coordinated with services providers to help them access resources as one of Bemidji's homeless shelters.

But this new ministry of Peoples Church occasionally led to conflict with the city of Bemidji, and after several high-tension incidents of police entering the church, the city sent a cease-and-desist order for the church’s shelter.

“For me, I thought ‘They can’t tell us what being a church means, that’s our deal,’” Kelly said. “It just seemed like every time we turned around we were blocked.”

Eventually, the city council called for testimony on Peoples Church at a surprise ad hoc meeting. Warned that this was going to happen, those who the church had helped and who it had meant so much to spoke out.

“(The council) asked for testimony on what the church had done for them, and these folks stepped up and spoke good things, above and beyond. It showed what we were trying to do,” Kelly said.

Leaving a legacy

While not always perfect, in the years following that hearing, the relationship with the city calmed down and it's been easier for Kelly and Peoples Church to continue their ministries.

And through those ministries, Kelly’s impact on Bemidji cannot be overstated. For so many in the community, Kelly was there when they were in need as a friend, a pastor and an advocate.

“This is the story of so many of us in our community who had nothing and were in trouble,” Thayer said. “Bob would be there. That says a lot about his character.”

Over the years, Kelly’s care for the people he has served extended beyond just when they needed him.

Even after Hawk moved out of Bemidji and got a house of her own, she mentioned Kelly still checks in on her. He asks if she needs anything, just like he did so many years ago.

“To this day he still checks on me,” Hawk shared. “I moved away and I’m doing my own thing now. Without having that type of person in my life so young, I don’t think I would have ever made it out of Bemidji in the positive way that I have.”

Kelly’s work has also been done quietly, without fanfare or a need for recognition.

“He’s this silent, humble hero,” Hawk said. “He’s done all these things without recognition. He’s never made videos to show off everything he was doing. He just did it because he truly cares.”

For Kelly, praise and validation have never been a part of why he serves the community. He does it out of passion and because he views the opportunity to work with those in need as a blessing.

“The gift is that you get to be with people who are struggling,” Kelly said. “Then good things happen to everybody: somebody becomes more humble, someone becomes more trusting. The blessing is a two-way street.”

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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