My girlfriend was sitting by a hospital bed when I called the other day.
“Hey,” she said. “I think there is someone here you will want to speak to.”
She put the phone up next to his ear.
“Hey,” he said. That molasses-soaked baritone of his echoed across the miles, transporting me to another time
“Hey buddy,” I replied. “How are you doing?”
“Not too well, right now,” he said. I always loved that about Pastor Smitty. He would never lie to me. He’s been battling cancer and a few other ailments that besiege those with age.
“Yes, I heard,” I said, tears welling up as they do now. I cannot speak of Pastor Smitty with anything less than a heart broken open. This is the man that I sought advice from when I found myself pregnant at age 17. I wrote about that in my memoir:
His office was located on the second-floor of the building, down the hall and around the corner from where I’d attended Sunday School class. His door was open. I knocked on it anyway. Smitty had a pen in hand and was studying a book.
“Karen, come in, come in,” Smitty said. He rose from his chair and gave me a big grin. Smitty is a handsome man when he smiles, which he does almost all the time. A bomber pilot during World War II, he’s kept that natural athlete look. His hair has turned from dark brown to silver to all white, but it’s still as thick as it was when he was 20. And he’s maintained his broad shoulders and trim waist. He’s what I imagine my own father might look like, only Daddy would surely have had less hair. It was already beginning to recede when he was killed.
“Have a seat,” he said, waving to the leather armchair facing his desk. Books filled the bookshelves behind him.
“Thank you, Pastor,” I said. My hands were sweating. My face flushed. I gripped the Bible in my left hand and offered him my right one. Smitty shook it. I had never been in his office before, for any reason. It was more daunting to me than that of Mr. Dollar’s, Columbus High’s principal. Smitty, after all, was a man of God.
I’d never really ever talked to grown men about things of a personal nature. Smitty was definitely in a powerful position, appointed by Almighty God himself. My heart was beating so hard I could hear it in my ears.
“I’m glad you called,” Pastor Smitty began.
“Well, I don’t know but I imagine you might of heard some rumors, sir,” I said. I fretted that I sounded every bit as awkward and as uncomfortable as I felt.
“As pastor, I’m always hearing things, Karen,” Smitty said, reassuringly. “But I don’t pay much attention to rumors. Why don’t you tell me what’s on your heart?”
That invitation was all I needed. For the next half-hour, I told Smitty everything. About my feelings of frustration, of anger, and abandonment. I told him of that awful prayer I’d prayed, telling God where to get off. And then, how I’d barreled headstrong into a relationship, fully intent on getting pregnant, so I could finally have the affection and love I sought. And about how, too late, I came to realize what poor choices I had made and, ohmygosh, what was I going to do now? I didn’t think Mama capable of raising a baby. Besides, I knew what it was like to grow up without a father and I didn’t want any child of mine growing up like that.
I told him about my brother’s phone call and his admonishment to not have an abortion because it was murder in God’s eyes. And about how angry it made me that my brother would dare to make such a phone call after all his foolishness over the years.
I told Smitty all this in an urgent and intense manner. The way a bystander tells a cop about the horrific wreck they’ve just witnessed. My confession was punctuated by sobs of shame. Smitty reached over his desk and handed me a box of tissues. He leaned back in his chair. His hands were crossed in thoughtful reflection. I knew he was searching and praying for the right words to bring me both comfort and wisdom. I was praying for the same thing. He let me cry in silence for awhile before speaking.
“Karen, it’s a terrible situation for you to be in,” he said. His tone was soft. Smitty never spoke with a tone of condemnation. Even when he preached, he wasn’t preachy. He was a teacher at heart, imparting life’s lessons as best he knew them. “What does your Mama think?”
“She was the first one to suggest I have an abortion, sir,” I replied. “But then, I think it was after she talked with Frank, she changed her mind. She’s decided she wants to keep the baby and raise it herself. But I could never let her do that.”
“You could always adopt the baby out,” Smitty said.
“Yes, sir, I thought of that. But I’ve decided I really want to go to college. And I have five more months to go until graduation. I’d have to go away somewhere.”
Nobody went to school pregnant at Columbus High in 1973. At least not visibly so. There were no school programs for pregnant teens. Girls who got pregnant always disappeared for six months or better. Smitty considered the situation before advising me further. Uncomfortable with the silence hanging between us, I blurted out, “I just don’t know what’s the right thing to do.”
“Well, Karen,” Smitty said, thoughtfully, “in situations like these I’m not sure there is a right thing to do. You’ve made a terrible mistake. When we invite sin into our lives, we are left with the consequences of our choices. The question before you is what’s the best thing you can do now that the wrong choice has been made. You have a list of consequences to choose from. I can’t tell you which one to pick. That’s a decision that you will have to make. But I know whatever you decide, your church family is here for you. We care a great deal for you. We want to help in any way we can.” I didn’t question for one moment Pastor Smitty’s concern for me. I knew he cared immensely about all people.
Before my memoir was published, I went back to Georgia, where Pastor Smitty and I sat at his dining room table. Miz Betty, his wife, joined us there. With his long and gracious hands spread out on the table, Smitty told me that he would have given me different advice today. We both spoke quietly, reverently of these matters, acknowledging to each other that we know better now than we did then. Before I left, Smitty did what he always does best – he prayed.
There’s a lot of talk in evangelical circles about this post-Christian era in which we now find ourselves. Beth Moore stood before 5,500 people this past weekend and urged, even pleaded with people to get plugged into a local church. There’s great fear that this online generation of Believers sees no need to join with a local body. Pastors and churches are so passé. The important thing as a Believer is to be relevant, after all, and well, churches and preachers, well who needs them?
That 17-year old girl still exists inside of me. She surfaces every time I hear Pastor Smitty’s voice and remember with a heart broken wide open how Smitty has always greeted me with warm embrace and has loved me, even declaring to others his pride in me, despite my unworthiness.
Pastor Smitty embodies the love of Christ to me. I told him that on the phone the other day as I thanked him once again for being such a big part of my life. I hope you have the honor of being loved and guided by a pastor like Smitty.