At Rose Hill Baptist with Pastor Smitty & Miz Betty.
I come from a diverse group of rednecks. Within our clan of misfits, we have several soldiers, a handful of engineers, some nurses, some plumbers, a few teachers, a bookkeeper or two, and more than our share of felons. There are no bankers, no doctors, and no lawyers. The saving grace of our lineage are those bold enough to step behind a pulpit – the preachers among us.
Nearly every Sunday Uncle Woody would leave his home in Rogersville, Tennessee and drive over to Morristown to preach. Rumor has it Woody was a hell-bent for trouble until Jesus got a’hold of him. There may be truth in that, I couldn’t say for sure. My fondest memories of Woody are of him doing a Donald Duck impression, which he was pretty good at. If a kid asked Woody anything, he was likely to puff up one side of his cheek and squeak out an answer, Donald Duck style.
Sister Tater’s boy, Gabe, was never hell-bent for anything. He’s been a good kid his entire life, all 24-years of it. When he was a little tyke, Gabe used to entertain us with his impression of Popeye the Sailor Man. We all laughed whenever Gabe would pull the sleeves up on his t-shirt, pop up a mini-muscle and flash us a freckled-faced grin. Gabe is studying for the ministry now and rumor has it the boy can truly preach the Word of God.
I’ve sat under a goodly number of preachers in my lifetime given that I’ve been in church most every Sunday since the summer of 1969, when Mama’s co-worker, Mrs. Yearty, invited me to attend Vacation Bible School.
My own conversion experience didn’t happen in a church, however. It took place in a 12-by-60 trailer perched on cinder blocks on a gated lot at Crystal Valley Estates, way out Macon Road. It wasn’t very long after I knelt by my bed and asked Jesus into my heart that I started attending Rose Hill Baptist Church in Columbus, Georgia.
It was there that I met the good Reverend William Smith and his vivacious wife Betty, or Miz Betty as she was known to everyone. It would be years before I got old enough to call my pastor by his nickname – “Smitty” – until then I just called him Pastor.
As I sit in this drafty room now, writing this from my Oregon home, the picture in my mind of Smitty is of him standing behind the pulpit, tall and handsome, an earnest look of concern etched in his brow as he testified to the love of God.
He was never one to carry on about hellfire and damnation as so many preachers in that time and place were prone to do. He was far too cerebral to resort to lazy manipulations of people’s emotions. Even then, as a young girl, I understood that Smitty was more than a preacher – he was a good and gentle Shepherd – but many years passed before I realized how rare is the gift that he embodied.
In my memoir – After the Flag has been Folded – I told things on myself that made a lot of people uncomfortable. Good Christian girls aren’t supposed to admit to having made horrific decisions like getting pregnant as a teenager and subsequently following that up with an abortion. But I told that story, in part, to share how the people at Rose Hill Baptist and specifically, how Smitty continued to love me to Jesus through all of that.
It was my church family I turned to when I ended up in trouble of my own making. It was Pastor Smitty I called upon for advice. That I, a 17-year-old girl who’d been raised by a single mother, called upon my preacher for help at one of the most desperate times of my life tells you all you need to know about the man.
Smitty never told me what to do. What he said was: “When we invite sin into our lives, we are left with the consequences of that sin. The question before you is what’s the best thing you can do now that the wrong choice has been made.”
Before that memoir went to print, I sat with Smitty and Miz Betty at the dining room table in the home where they had raised their two children, Steve and Sharon. Earlier that evening, Smitty told me the story of how he’d been a pilot in World War II when he was shot down just shy of a Japanese-dominated island in 1944. Smitty was eventually rescued by a Navy float plane. The pilot of that rescue plane was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and Smitty was awarded the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and a Purple Heart. We finished our visit that evening the way Smitty always ended every visit, with a word of prayer.
Smitty was hospitalized when we last spoke. We said the things to each other that some people wait to the end of life to say but Smitty said to people all the time – how much he loved and appreciated me. He and Miz Betty showed up at every book signing I had in my hometown and were always quick to tell me how proud they were of me.
Preachers are about as common as felons – all it takes to be one of those is a little-bit of know-how – but rare is the preacher who can pastor.
My prayer is that every man, woman and child would have the blessing that I have known – that of being loved by a Good and Gentle Shepherd like Pastor Smitty.