Raised in an Irish Catholic family, Colleen Kelly earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Scranton and a nursing degree from Columbia University. She subsequently went on to become a nurse practitioner and co-founded the Ita Ford Health Clinic, which offered free medical services to the poor in Harlem, New York.
On September 11, 2001, Ms. Kelly’s younger brother, 30-year-old William, was killed in the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center in New York. Soon thereafter, Kelly joined with family members of other 9/11 victims and formed the organization September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. As the group began to coalesce and gain members in 2002, Kelly quit her nursing job in order to devote herself full-time to Peaceful Tomorrows. She served as the group’s New York-area coordinator.
In January 2003, Peaceful Tomorrows’ members visited Iraq and were given a tour of Baghdad by representatives of Saddam Hussein‘s Baathist government. At one point, the Americans were taken to a shelter where, according to the tour guides, some 200 Iraqi civilians had been killed by U.S. forces during the 1991 Gulf War. When the Peaceful Tomorrows delegation subsequently returned to the United States, its constituents took part in a media blitz that was heavily promoted by the Institute for Public Accuracy. Colleen Kelly, for her part, told the Voice of America: “The twisted steel and concrete visible there inside the shelter was very reminiscent of the wreckage of the World Trade Center. So there was a deep connection.”
In August 2010, Kelly spoke out in favor of Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf‘s proposed construction of an Islamic mosque and cultural center near the “Ground Zero” site where the World Trade Center had once stood in Manhattan. Rejecting the notion “that the religion of Islam is represented by 19 men who willfully drove planes into three buildings and a field on September 11th, murdering thousands,” Kelly suggested that public opposition to the mosque project was largely due to “religious intolerance.” The mosque “in many ways [would be] a fitting tribute,” she said, adding: “This is the voice of Islam that I believe needs a wider audience. This is what moderate Islam is all about.”
In August 2011, Kelly was named as the winner of Pax Christi USA‘s Teacher of Peace Award. She was formally presented with this honor the following month at a Pax Christi-sponsored event titled “Peace and Reconciliation: Spiritual Reflections a Decade After 9/11,” where the Rev. Jim Wallis made a special guest appearance. Previous winners of the Pax Christi award included such notables as Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, Thomas Gumbleton, Colman McCarthy, Helen Prejean, Roy Bourgeois, Martin Sheen, and Philip Berrigan.
In a September 2011 op-ed, Kelly recalled that in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks ten years earlier, she had felt “confusion” over how the U.S. could respond to those atrocities by “planning to bomb others a world away [in Afghanistan].” “Didn’t we … yes we …. just live through this?” she asked in the op-ed. “And how could we … yes we … be the cause of similar harm to others?” Kelly also noted that when a rabbi named Irwin Kula had examined “the last words” of those who managed to speak by phone to their loved ones just before dying on September 11th, he discovered that “not a single person said … ‘Avenge my death.’ No. Last words were not about hatred; they were sometimes about fear, but ultimately, and overwhelmingly, the last words of those killed on 9/11 were about love.”
In November 2015, Kelly took issue with the writer and political activist David Paine’s assertion that “as we learned with Hitler and Nazism, no approach other than outright war can put an end to the kind of evil that is fermenting in the Middle East.” Stating that “the West must recognize and repair their part in the creation of [the terrorist organization] ISIS ,” Kelly disagreed with those who sought to limit or bar the influx of refugees to the U.S. from Syria and other war-torn, terrorism-infested countries around the world — on grounds that it would be impossible to properly vet those people. In Kelly’s estimation, “[T]he vast majority of those fleeing the horror of ISIS are doing just that … fleeing the horror and brutality of a fascist regime. Turning refugees away locks them in hell.” Regarding military approaches to dealing with ISIS and other adversaries, Kelly wrote: “The murder of civilians is never justifiable. Not is Paris; not in Beirut. Not in New York, London, Madrid, Bali, Aleppo, Mumbai, Gaza, nor Tel Aviv.”
In January 2017, Kelly implored the newly elected U.S. president, Donald Trump, to shut down the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center in Cuba: “Fifteen years. Two administrations. President-elect Trump — Do what others were not willing or able [to do]: End torture in all its varied forms and pseudonyms. End indefinite detention and restore rule of law. Speed up the calendar for the 9-11 trial and others … End Gitmo.”
Further Reading: “Colleen Kelly” (WeAreMany.com); “A Peaceful Mourning” (Mother Jones, Sept/Oct 2002); “How to Stage a Controversy” (Weekly Standard, 3-22-2004); “Not All 9-11 Families Oppose The Mosque” (PCUSA Honors Colleen Kelly of Peaceful Tomorrows as 2011 Teacher of Peace” (8-21-2011); “Op-Ed: Ten Years After 9/11, the Last Word Is Love” (Colleen Kelly, 9-16-2011); “Human Rights Activists Call for Closure of Guantanamo, No Torture Under Trump Administration” (CCRJustice.org, 1-11-2017).