2013-10-31 / News

Retired reverend releases book

By Ken Shane

The Rev. James Keller of Jamestown didn’t set out to be a cleric. The retired minister has written a memoir where he details his road to the church, stopping at three islands that have been the touchstones of his life. That journey is reflected in the book’s title, “Three Islands in my Life and Ministry.”

“I’ve been writing down things for a number of years,” Keller said. “At first I thought it might be a good thing to let a limited number of readers read about my life and my ministry. From time to time, people have said I have had a unique ministry. Some said I should write for a wider audience, not just friends and family.”

Keller, the son of a Navy officer, was born on the island of Samoa in 1931. Although he only spent a few months in the Pacific nation, he regards his birth as part of his formative experience. A few years later, Keller and his family spent two years living in China, and evacuated when the Japanese invaded in 1937.

Back in the United States, the family settled in Coventry, Conn., where Keller was educated in a one-room schoolhouse without electricity. He was interested in becoming a geologist and traveled west to attend the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He was there a little more than two years before realizing that rocks were not for him.

While still searching for his calling, Keller met the campus minister at New Mexico and his life was changed. Henry Hayden served as the advisor to the ecumenical community, and his penchant for social activism left a life-long impression on Keller. Keller’s early activism included a successful effort to fight racial discrimination at a local restaurant.

Back at home in Connecticut, Keller’s father, by then retired from the Navy, become concerned that Keller was becoming radicalized out west. He insisted his son return east and attend a school closer to home. Keller enrolled in Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., but soon found himself disillusioned.

“Wesleyan was not really the most inspiring time in my academic career,” Keller said. “I don’t think I was ready for the stringent academic requirements of a place like Wesleyan.” Keller never forgot what he learned from Hayden, his minister out west. Hayden had taught him that Christianity was about justice. That contemplation, along with a book by William James, “The Variety of Religious Experience,” finally put Keller on the path to the ministry.

In 1952, Keller applied to the Union Theological Seminary in New York. He was accepted and spent three years studying in Manhattan. While he was there, he met a man named George McLeod, a visiting professor from the religious community of Iona, a Scottish island. McLeod eventually returned to Iona to rebuild the 12th-century abbey and make it an ecumenical center. Keller was invited to assist McLeod. Keller spent two years in Scotland where Iona became the second island to help shape his ministry.

When Keller returned to the United States, he was posted to the South Bronx where he remained for 11 years. He continued his fight for social justice, working on housing development, gang intervention and serving on the local school board.

In 1968, Keller took a one-year sabbatical and got a fellowship to the Harvard Divinity School. He was then contacted by the Greater Lawrence Ecumenical Area Min- istry in Lawrence, Mass., where he was hired as the executive director. The organization was formed by local religious denominations to work with the growing Latino community.

After 19 years with GLEAM, Keller officially retired, yet still continued his battle for social justice. Keller and his wife moved to Cuernavaca in Mexico where they worked for a retreat center. Keller received a stipend of $200 to be on the staff. The center was somewhere for North American communicants to learn about Third World issues, and the role that the United States plays in those issues.

During his time in the South Bronx, Keller and his wife visited friends in Jamestown and decided to purchase 2 acres of land on the island where the couple could build a house. The family grew to include three children and they would come to the island every August. Keller would rent the house the other 11 months. In 1993, after the four years in Mexico, the Kellers moved to Jamestown full time, making Conanicut the third island that formed Keller’s life and ministry.

“Jamestown became such a breath of fresh air,” he said.

These days Keller occasionally does interim work at churches that are between pastors. He continues to work for peace and justice. The couple began attending Central Baptist Church, but recently Keller said he felt like he needed something more. He now attends a Lutheran church in Providence that is bilingual and bicultural. He occasionally preaches at the church.

Keller’s book can be purchased at Lulu.com/shop. He is hoping to hold a local book signing in the near future.

“I hope people see that my kind of ministry is something that seeks to have religious people involved in the world,” Keller said. “Many churches do not deal with issues. They preach more personal spirituality. I hope that people can learn from my ministry that deals with the wider issues as well.”

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