The Love of One Pastor

Pastor Smitty and Mis Betty at one of my book events in Georgia this past spring.  

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?

I do.

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.

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  • Patti Montgomery

    They are such a precious couple! I love Pastor and Mrs. Smith so much and they were such a big part of my young life as well. We are so blessed to have had them in our lives as we began our adult lives. Thanks for sharing.

    Love ya,

  • Scott Eaton

    Wow. We pastors don’t always get it right, but when we do, well…

    I’ve been a pastor since 1996 and sometimes I feel passe. I’m not much good at the CEO model thing and leadership isn’t one of my great strengths. But I try hard to listen. And pray. And encourgae people with the good news of Christ and His love. I seek to be faithful to God and the scripture when I teach and preach. I think I mostly get it right, but sometimes I blow it too.

    Thank God for Pastor Smitty in your life. This was an act of God’s grace to you. Fortunately there are more Pastor Smitty’s out there and they likely won’t be found at the biggest church in town. At least this is my experience.

    Thank you for the beautiful piece, Karen. Thank you for your honesty. I can’t speak for others, but it has greatly encouraged this pastor.

  • Debbie W

    Do you mind if I ask what he would tell you different from what he said back then?

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Pastor Smitty’s son would go on to adopt three young boys later in life. As the grandfather of adopted children, Pastor Smitty would have encouraged me even more to avoid the abortion that I eventually had. In Jan. 1974 when I had that abortion the general dialogue about unborn babies referred to them as fetal tissue. I was unaware, and so was Smitty, of the actual development of a baby at that stage. We lacked the technological advances then that we have now.
      That said, I know Smitty’s advice would have been different. I don’t know that my choice would have been. It’s a futile exercise to take information we have now and judge the decisions we’ve made in the past.

      • Debbie W

        Thanks for answering my question sweet lady, I understand – I am the mother of four resulting from my poor choices of daddy’s, thankfully I live in a country whose social services are ok enough for me to have been able to keep my kids. Back when my mother had four kids before she was 21 it wasn’t as easy she walked out with the guy next door when I was three and my baby brother was six mths old – we all have sad tales in our past and thank The Lord for His Love and Mercy. I am still looking to connect with a church in my new town and I am making a start tomorrow by taking my youngest two to a playgroup run by an Independent Church who rent the Seven Day Adventist hall – go figure?

  • Eleanor

    When you split your heart in two for us, it’s an act of grace.

  • Gloria

    Thank you once again for a powerful post. As you know, we have a lot in common and reading your post broke my heart wide open. I love you!

  • David T.

    Not all Christians understand the importance of coming together corporately (for lack of a better word) for worship as a body of believers. Paul addresses this a number of times. As Christians need our “alone” time with God for sure. But the Bible tells us we also need to come together to worship and to study the word. To help lift each other up, and to be accountable. Acts 2:42-47,describes what the New Testament Church should look like. Together” they devoted them selves to the teaching. “Together” they Looked out for each others needs.”Together they broke bread. And “Together” They praised God. As a result, “The Lord added to their numbers daily those who were being saved”
    Something else A lot of “Church going” folks,(and unfortunately) a number of “Preachers” fail to understand is that there is a big difference between a Preacher and a Pastor.
    Smitty was and will always to me be a Pastor. And on this side of Heaven there is no greater compliment I could bestow upon him.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      David: I know exactly what you mean when you say that Smitty was a pastor and not only a preacher. And that whole togetherness thing? God created us for community. When we cut ourselves off from it, we cut ourselves off from God. I remember that story Patsy Ward told me once about the log burning by itself.

  • Beautiful and thought provoking, Karen. Bless you.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Thanks, T.

  • Steve Taylor

    My sister, as so often is the case, your renderings are the rich humus that births my own ponderings. And I have a story, but I think, given the raw beauty and struggle of which you bless us with here, it should wait for another time. Thank you for offering so much of yourself. It is a gift of grace.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      I look forward to when you share your story.