The Rev. Alana Kelley took various paths before finding her calling
It might seem surprising that a woman who is the former owner of a gourmet cafe could appreciate something with the dubious name “bacon fry.”
But that is exactly the Hungarian custom that Alana Kelley chose to celebrate her installation as the pastor of Magyar United Church of Christ on West River Road in Elyria.
Kelley began her position as the church’s head pastor Jan. 10. She chose to delay the official ceremony until summer, however, so that she could enjoy an authentic Hungarian celebration. Her installation ceremony — complete with slabs of bacon cooking over a wood fire — took place Aug. 26.
The ceremony was the culmination of a winding journey that saw Kelley embark on two different careers before stepping to the pulpit.
Originally from Pennsylvania, she taught high school art while her husband, David, pursued a doctorate from Harvard. While they lived in Boston, Kelley commuted to Philadelphia to train at The Restaurant School. When her husband was offered a position in the East Asian and History departments at Oberlin College, she opened the Foxgrape Cafe, a gourmet eatery and coffee shop.
She and her family — including sons Matthew and Zachary — started attending First Church United Church of Christ in Oberlin, where they live. A self-described lapsed Catholic, she said she “probably went to church twice, not counting weddings and funerals,” from the time she graduated from high school to when she moved to Oberlin.
She liked that the church was less conservative than the Ukranian Catholic Church she attended as a child. And it didn’t hurt that the church ordained women, she said.The more I got involved at church,” she said, “the more I started to feel like I didn’t belong in the business world. I was just fitting in less and less.
“I believe that restaurants pretty much have to be reinvented every five years or so, and I didn’t have the energy to do that at Foxgrape because I was just feeling so called to do something else.”She said God had begun to turn her heart toward ministry.“I ignored that for a long time, because it just seemed so crazy to me — this idea of going into ministry,” she said.
When Kelley approached her pastor to discuss the situation, his response was straightforward. “When God calls, God calls,” Kelley said he told her.
As for her husband?
“David thought I was bonkers,” she said. “But he stood by me.”
Kelley enrolled in Methodist Theological School in Delaware, just north of Columbus, and made the 90-minute commute twice a week. It wasn’t until after her first semester of studies that she closed the Foxgrape Cafe, which had been open for 8½ years.
While in seminary, Kelley did her field study as the youth minister at the Avon Lake United Church of Christ. After receiving her master’s of divinity, she was offered a position as associate pastor at that church, where she served for two years.
Then, she got a phone call to serve as a fill-in pastor at Magyar. She did six Sunday sermons there, but never expected to stay on because she’d heard that its parishioners never had, and never would, hire a woman.
So she was more than surprised when a church official called her. “They really love you, and they would like to call you to be their pastor,” she was told.
Bill Peter, who was involved in the search committee that selected Kelley, said that the committee’s vote in Kelley’s favor was unanimous, and the congregation agreed with a nearly 100 percent approval rating. They all appreciated her demeanor and her preaching style.
Kelley, he said, was “just the best candidate.”
Magyar originally was an all-Hungarian congregation, established in 1916 to welcome Hungarian immigrants to the country and provide them a worship space. That history fit with Kelley’s background — her parents were immigrants of Ukrainian descent.
“I had this real sense that somehow I fit in well and belonged there,” she said.
She said one of her goals with the church is to reach out to the community. She and four members of the congregation attended an Ohio United Church of Christ conference program called Flight School, which is designed to help congregations that are becoming smaller in size and older to consider what they’ll be in the future.
“It seems to be pretty much the desire of the people I’ve talked to to do something pretty dramatic at this point to involve the community more in the congregation,” she said.
Kelley said the parishioners are trying to devise ways to involve themselves in the neighborhood around the church.
The church is “comfortable, loving, accepting,” Kelley said. “I just really want to throw the doors open. The church is unbelievably welcoming.”
Contact Dale Sheffield at 329-7155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.