Lion for God

The Rev. Willie B. Smith, 1928-2014

What a man he was.

John Schwiebert introduced me to Willie Smith in September, 2000. I'd been living at the Peace House for two months at that point, nursing my wounds over losing both a marriage and a career, unsure what direction to take in the days ahead. John knew that, apart from being a minister, I was a musician; in fact, my last six months as a pastor had been spent in music ministry, directing a choir and playing the piano when I wasn't engaged in other tasks. John knew that Willie Smith was looking for a pianist for The Church of the Good Shepherd, an independent African-American congregation he had founded six years before. I had an affinity for black worship and needed some income, so I agreed to meet with Willie, and was soon spending my Sunday mornings at his church.

Willie Smith was a striking man, tall, handsome, energetic, and utterly confident in the truth of what he had to say. He had served in the Air Force as a young man, then worked his way up through the ranks of the Postal Service to postmaster before retiring to Portland. He'd also been a minister in the AME Zion denomination for most of that time. Once in Portland, he became the first black president of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. He came to know John Schwiebert when it struck him that the church's position on homosexuality needed rethinking, and he was told that John could answer some questions for him. This led to a complete turnaround in his beliefs, and as with anything he believed, he embraced the cause of gay rights wholeheartedly, preaching frequently about it. In 1993, he left the Portland AME Zion church under a cloud of controversy, founding Good Shepherd a year later at the request of disaffected families from his form congregation.

Good Shepherd was created in Willie's image: an ecumenical, "inter-faith" church with a hard left agenda that was still utterly evangelical in style and proclamation. Everything I know about playing gospel music I learned in that church. I was also given the privilege of preaching once a month, and quickly came to appreciate what a difference it made to preach for a responsive congregation, however small it might be.

The greatest impact Willie had in me, though, came outside of those services. I arrived early on Sundays to work with the "Cathedral Choir" (rarely more than four singers) on whatever our special music would be. Then I'd have an hour to kill, most of which I spent in Willie's office, listening to his stories of growing up in Louisiana in the 1930s, of his struggle to wrest custody of his children from his first wife, of battling with over-privileged church superintendents and bishops. He had no respect for institutional church administrators, and commiserated about my own experiences with them. He urged me to step out, to seize life at a time when I was feeling small, victimized, incompetent. When my parents came to church to hear me preach, driving all the way up from McMinnville, he insisted that my father sit on the dais with him, and share in presiding over Communion. When my father celebrated his fiftieth anniversary of being ordained, he did so by preaching at Good Shepherd.

In 2005, I left Good Shepherd to take a much better-paying position in Vancouver. I lost touch with the congregation, though I still encountered Willie Smith from time to time. When my father was hospitalized, my mother asked me to call Willie to ask for prayers. A few years ago, I learned that Willie was to have brain surgery (when I told my mother, she worried that he might lose his hair). I visited him, and he seemed well, but toward the end, John tells me, he began to lose his ability to focus, and particularly to read. Two weeks ago, he suffered a massive heart attack, and died. Last week, I attended his funeral.

The church was packed. John Schwiebert delivered the sermon, and I read the scripture. I was warmly welcomed by Good Shepherd members who remembered me, including some who had been children when last they saw me but were now full-grown adults. The service was filled with joy and humor, as befitted a send-off for such a man as Willie Smith. After the service, over dinner, many wondered if they would see me again. I was evasive in my responses.

The truth is that church, even independent progressive church, is an uncomfortable fit for me. It's not just the institution that gives me pause: it's the beliefs. I can't say I believe these things anymore. And yet, as I read the scriptures at that service, I found resonance in the words, and I could believe, for one day, that this man really did come from, and was now returning to, a God who is active, loving, involved.

God speed, Willie Smith.

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