Pastor Smitty: The rare gift

Pastor Smitty: The rare gift December 27, 2010

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.

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  • Nice. I’ve thought for a long time that something so sacred as preaching shouldn’t be something that people go into as a career path. It should be something that people are called to do and it should be entered into carefully and thoughtfully. If folks are looking for a vocation, they should find one, but if they are looking for a calling, they should first become a good and gentle shepherd. What a beautiful way to honor a real shepherd.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      April: I don’t think Smitty could have done the sort of job he did if not for the call upon his life. You are right about that.

  • We would never have more seeds if all were eaten as food. Some need to “die” by being planted so that more seeds may be eaten and planted. The best thing we can do with the gift of life is to give it away in one form or another. That means planting the seeds of our lives by committing them to causes larger than ourselves: marriage, parenting, teaching, healing, being God’s instruments of love and grace and redemption. Yes, and sometimes surrendering a portion of our lives to the defense of home. These things temper us because they are not about us but about all of us. In the kingdom of God, the whole is always so much greater than the sum of its parts. And it shows.

  • Patti Lindsey Montgomery

    Those days at Rose Hill Baptist church and Pastor Bill (and Mrs. Betty) helped shaped my young life to make me the woman I am today. Thank you for writing this tribute to such a wonderful man of God.
    Love you, Patti

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      So many in that church poured their lives out for us, Patti. Teaching us, guiding us, feeding us. (They may have overdone that last part). I’ve always believed our youth group was remarkable in that we learned early on the value of prayer and mentorship.

  • What an incredible tribute! It is indeed a blessing to have even a single shepherd like Pastor Smitty in one’s lifetime.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Ken: Indeed, I was blessed.

  • David T.

    I have always believed that there are Angles masquerading as Humans all around us. Smitty had to have been one of them. We were very blessed to have him as our pastor, especially in our teen years.
    72 air combat missions in WW II , may have made him a true American Hero. A feet he humbly looked at as just a scared kid doing his duty. His real legacy is measured in the number of eternities he had a hand in changing. Mine being one of them.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      How blessed we were to have Smitty as our pastor. I wonder how many teenagers have been as blessed as we were, David? Smitty always enjoyed you. I can still see the look on his face as he would welcome you to the pulpit to sing. He took such pride in all us kids.

  • As a preacher who took seriously my role as pastor, I love this tribute to Pastor Smitty. After 30 years of preaching, I am now working in our family operated funeral home, but your writings (books and now your blog) have entertained, encouraged, and fascinated me!

    Your comment, “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” is so very true. Thank you, Karen, for blessing my life.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Greg: Thank you for being the kind of preacher that pastors. I am sure there are many who would write the same sort of tribute about you. I am so thankful that my friendship with Smitty spanned the years. We had many good discussions over the years about how and why the evangelical church changed. Smitty was not only a wise man, he was one of the kindest men I’ve ever known. He embodied the term brotherly love. I am sad to lose him but know that he is right where he’s always been — in the presence of the Lord he served so faithfully.

  • Steve Taylor

    Incarnation I think … the Jesus indwelling those gentle and wise folk like Pastor Smitty. They pastor us, they mentor us, they impact how we see and experience the world long after we have moved beyond their presence, as if we could ever really move beyond their presence. For love is never eclipsed, simply renarrated into new life. Perhaps it’s a bit like a poor kid being born into a feed-trough amidst poverty, occupation, political turmoil, violence and powerlessness, and suddenly the whole world looks different. Or maybe a portrait of a young girl who bears the burden of her brokenness and in the midst of such “outcastness” discovers she remains a blessed child of that same poor kid. That’s what the “Pastor Smittys” do, you know. They love us into new possibility. In a word – hope. In Jesus, they offer a broken world hope.

    He was like that, my “Pastor Smitty.” I change his name a bit, maybe to protect the innocent, although those who know him will still know him. Like love, his life is too big to eclipse or camouflage. Karen, I even suspect you’ve rubbed shoulders with him. Back in the day, one couldn’t hang in Fayetteville for too long without doing so. To enter his orbit was to discover a bit of his wonder and exuberance for life. Even there near the train-tracks on a dirty Fayetteville side-street, one couldn’t stay long without discovering a new reality.

    It was that kind of place, a place which in no small measure bore his persona. A place where each and every day, a miracle might occur. Not a big miracle you understand. Just some small thing, some bit of hope in the face of oppressive despair. Some brief flash of joy in an otherwise miserable existence, a cup of coffee offered by gentle hands, or perhaps nothing more than a smile – a miracle, you know, when one is never smiled upon. Indeed it was that kind of place – Curt Hooper’s place.

    How we loved to go there, to be in at least some minute way, part of the miracle. As we would work, Curt would chat with us, never meaning to preach, yet always soon slipping into his best pulpit voice, honed from 35 years as a Presbyterian minister. He would talk about justice and peace and the struggle for freedom. He spoke of great joy and endless sorrow. He would pronounce the stories of success and convey the darkness of nightmares. He would talk as one who knew the pain and suffering of the other. He would speak from countless hurts and a thousand shattered dreams. And in every story, in every utterance, his love for these forgotten, broken ones would wash over us, lifting us up and bringing us life. How he loved them.

    And each day they came, these friends of Curt. They shuffled through the door by the dozens, generally with heads lowered, their dead-fish eyes staring dumbly from faces that offered wordless expressions. They came to this place where they might find a pair of unsoiled pants, or maybe a coat to wear as they made their way about the cold concrete of the city. They came for food that for them was often in short supply. They came because maybe in the coming, it might mean that their sick child might have medication for one more week, or that their family might stay off the streets for another month, or that their father might struggle to learn one more word leading to being truly literate.

    Their stories for coming were as varied as their faces, a kaleidoscope of scarcity in a world of abundance. But for more than any other reason, they came because at least at this place, they were always welcomed. Here, Curt ensured that they were embraced and celebrated and loved.

    Yet, even then, even with the best and most wondrous of intentions, their coming and their being was not always an activity of beauty. Sometimes it was a scene of chaos and bitterness. Oftentimes, the rawness of life on the edge would spill over into this place of hope. For one gets angry from always being on the bottom. One gets angry when all one faces is another barrier, when all activity from dawn to dusk is punctuated by lack. One gets angry when one’s children never have new toys with which to play or a bicycle to ride, when one’s wife never gets to wear a dress that has not been worn by some other man’s wife, when one’s husband never seems to make enough, even when he works and works and works. One gets angry. And sometimes it just explodes.

    It must have been that kind of day when we found him, sitting – head in his hands, glasses on the desk in front of him – sitting, looking like a man with no life left to give, drained and as broken as any of these whom he served. He scarcely looked up as we entered the room. He hardly acknowledged our existence as we made ourselves comfortable in the battered chairs sitting across from his ancient desk. We tried to offer up a bit of comfort, some ray of sunshine in the despondency of the moment.

    Yet, nothing seemed to make any difference, until one of us happily remembered the very words which Curt had offered to us. He smiled at Curt and exclaimed, “I know you are having a bad day, Curt. But you are so fortunate, for no matter how bad the day is, each time someone who is in need comes through those doors, it is Jesus who enters.”

    For long moments Curt did not respond. For long moments he just sat and pondered these words, reflecting on them, weighing their impact in his life. Then, he slowly raised his head, gave us a small weary smile and said …

    “Yeah. And sometimes Jesus can be a real son-of-a-bitch.”

    Truth. Hard and brutal, spoken from one who loves and lives and cares more than any other. Truth. Wrapped in no sweet platitudes, cloaked with no simple clichés, masked in no outer garments of false civility. Curt spoke the truth, the truth of loving the unlovable, the truth of loving the unwashed, the unwanted, the angry, the beaten, the battered. He spoke with no allusions about the difficulty of facing such brokenness day after day. He spoke with the clarity of one who bears the burden of societal lack and human discard in the midst of a culture that throws away food. He spoke of loving in the face of hatred and even there, especially there, finding the face of God – loving the world into a new possibility.

    I haven’t seen Curt lately. We live in different cities now. I moved on and he retired. After so long, he finally had to set aside the struggle. He wanted to stay, but his body grew weary. Not long ago I read some of Mother Teresa’s writing – her lament and struggle of “the absence of Christ.” I think this is the way it must be for those who embrace the brokenness so deeply. They bear it in their own souls, maybe even to the point where they cry from the cross, “Why have you forsaken me!” I know that Curt, even in his exuberance and joy for life, bore that same reality. Deep faith seems to always birth such paradox, I think.

    But, you know, I don’t worry about him. For I know he lives in that place called Kingdom, that place where he embraces and loves Jesus who walks into our existence enmeshed in “the least of these,” who loves beyond our capacity, who indwells in the deepest brokenness, sometimes even in the lives of those we might consider “a real son-of-a-bitch.”

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Steve: So much about Curt’s story that I love. Love renarrated…they love us into new possibility…for one gets angry when all activity is punctuated by lack. Faith, if it is to mean anything, should always present a paradox for each of us. Kingdom living is hard work. That’s why God refers to us as laborers, I think.
      Thanks for sharing Curt’s story. I love your storytelling.

      • Steve Taylor

        Karen, you are so very generous. I thank God that Pastor Smitty is in your life and hold you in prayer as you grieve such loss. And I celebrate such life as this, that though we miss their fleshy presence, those that nourish us so never leave us. Such is the gift of incarnate love. Such is the gift of faith.

  • Karen, I so enjoyed this tribute to your pastor. As the granddaughter of a much loved preacher who was pastor to the bone, I read it holding back the tears. Or maybe not. Later.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Shellie: I didn’t write it holding back tears, no reason why you should read it doing so.

  • Beautiful tribute to your pastor, Karen. God bless him.

  • John in PDX

    I am sorry for your loss.

    To walk together to the kirk,
    And all together pray,
    While each to his great Father bends,
    Old men, and babes, and loving friends
    And youths and maidens gay !

    And to teach,
    by his own example,
    love and reverence to all things
    that God made and loveth.

    Farewell, farewell ! but this I tell
    To thee, thou Wedding-Guest !
    He prayeth well, who loveth well
    Both man and bird and beast.

    He prayeth best, who loveth best
    All things both great and small ;
    For the dear God who loveth us,
    He made and loveth all.

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Beautiful, John. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Debbie

    Well I didn’t hold back the tears – I bawled like a baby reading the whole lot. I have never known such a love Karen yet I am so glad that Smitty and Mis Betty showered you and all who crossed their way. Steve that was a wonderful tribute to Curt as well and to AF Roger, I have always sensed a pastors heart in the things you share, sometimes I wish you were my neighbour. Pure hearts you all have – purified by faith and you all encourage me to keep walking in Him. Darn need a tissue.