Paul Smith: A light in the darkness

Leslie Scanlon profiles the noted Presbyterian pastor and theologian whose livelong work was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s concept of the beloved community.

Paul Smith. Photo provided.

Paul Smith was a young student at Hartford Seminary when he first heard Howard Thurman speak. Later, he formed a personal connection with the groundbreaking theologian and mystic — visiting and writing back and forth, sharing ideas and inspiration, until Thurman’s death in 1981.

Smith was a senior at Talladega College in Alabama in 1957 when Martin Luther King Jr., then a rising civil rights leader, came to speak. On behalf of his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, Smith helped to escort the speakers around campus — and on that visit introduced King and Andrew Young, who later strategized together on some of the most significant civil rights initiatives of the 1960s. Smith came away from that meeting with this impression of King: “This surely was a man of God.”

In October 2022, when Smith preached as part of the 200th-anniversary celebration at First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn – a congregation where he served as minister for 20 years, as its first Black pastor – he quoted all of these great influences on his life. King spoke at the March on Washington of a “fierce urgency of now” — a message that’s never been more significant for a broken world, Smith said.

When people go deep into their faith – honestly confronting their fears, going down, down, down into the depths – “our faith is bigger than our fears,” Smith said. “There is a light that appears in the luminous darkness. … You begin to shake hands with God.”

At 87, Smith embarks on a new phase of his ministry, a career which has been marked by work in racially diverse settings and later serving as a Black pastor of mostly White congregations in Georgia – Hillside Presbyterian Church in Decatur – and in Brooklyn Heights. He earned a doctor of ministry degree from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, and his book Facing Death: The Deep Calling to the Deep offers prayers and reflections based on his work with people facing death, including the tennis great Arthur Ashe.

Now retired, Smith helps lead a new initiative at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.: A program to train leaders across lines of division, funded by a $491,000 grant from Trinity Church Wall Street.

That initiative grew out of the kind of interfaith, boundary-crossing, public theology work that has been at the center of Smith’s ministry. Ordained as a minister in what’s now the United Church of Christ, Smith has long served Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations. Hildi Hendrickson, the author of his biography Building Beloved Communities: The Life and Work of Rev. Dr. Paul Smith, is a Buddhist academic. National Cathedral, where Smith and his wife, Fran, became involved after his retirement, is an Episcopal congregation. And Leonard L. Hamlin Sr., canon missioner at National Cathedral and Smith’s collaborator in the new project, is a Baptist minister overseeing the cathedral’s outreach and social justice work.

Hamlin said that when he and Smith met a few years ago, they began to discuss “how we might be able to remove some of the walls that really divide us” in this nation.

Their idea: to bring together leaders who work on systemic racism in their own communities, but who come from different contexts; a diverse group in terms of socioeconomics, gender, race, age and geography. Those leaders – a cohort of about 25 people who will come together for intense in-person sessions at the cathedral – likely will include faith leaders, entrepreneurs, first responders and people who work in business, government and public advocacy.

The intent, Hamlin said, is “to bring together leaders from around the country who would not have an opportunity to meet, to discuss challenging issues” and to build relationships across their differences. Each will bring an issue of a particular concern in their context — a case study to present to the group. They will be encouraged to speak honestly, to not hold back.

The hope is to build relationships over the days together and to hear views from people they might not otherwise encounter or get to know, Hamlin said. “We know how much it’s needed right now,” he said. “We believe that inside sacred space there are conversations that can be encouraged,” and that this diverse group can build trust and work together to begin to bring new answers back to their home communities.

The organizers want the participants “to unleash all the things that are on their minds, without being judged,” Smith said. “A conversation can be held, and hopefully some kind of change is made,” emerging from a cross-cultural conversation that is rare today.

Smith leads the advisory committee for the project. Late in his career, it’s a continuation of the kind of work for racial justice he’s done all his life. He grew up Baptist in South Bend, Indiana, sitting every Sunday in church with his grandmother.

“I was actually speaking to the congregation when I was 12,” invited to preach, Smith said in an interview. “My grandmother kept telling them that I was going to be somebody, that they needed to listen to me.”

Did he feel called to the ministry even as a child? “I don’t use the word ‘call’ to describe it,” Smith said. “I don’t know what that means. … I would say there was something within me that enabled me to see there was something greater than myself.”

“I would say there was something within me that enabled me to see there was something greater than myself.”

Smith says the Baptist church gave him freedom to find his voice, and he won a scholarship to go to college. In 1957, when King came to speak at Talladega, “It was before Dr. King was as popular as he became,” Smith said. “Still, he could cancel on a dime” — so Young was invited as the backup speaker, just in case. As it turned out, the wives of both King and Young were expecting babies, and both Coretta Scott King and Jean Childs Young were from Marion, Alabama. When the speeches were over, Young and King drove back to Marion together, cementing their connection, and Smith was profoundly moved by his interactions with both men.

Paul Smith. Photo provided.

He also was deeply influenced by Thurman, a Black theologian, who with the White pastor Alfred Fisk founded The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, California. Smith calls it an experiment — to test “was it possible for people from different racial backgrounds to worship together?”

In the mid-1970s, Smith was invited to a dinner party at the home of Annalee Scott. Smith was then the pastor, along with the White pastor Carl Dudley, of Berea Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri. Scott was a parishioner there, as well as the director of the Phyllis Wheatley Branch of the YMCA, and Thurman and Scott had become friends. Smith and his wife, Fran, arrived late at the gathering – one of their daughters was sick – so when they first got to Scott’s apartment, they stood in for a few minutes in a doorway to avoid interrupting Thurman as he spoke.

Smith said Thurman spoke of carrying on his work, and Thurman looked up and said, “Maybe the young man standing in the doorway may be the one to carry on my legacy. … He and I became the best of friends.”

As Smith taught seminary students, “every class I taught while he was living, their final assignment was to write a letter with a question they wanted Thurman to answer.” And Thurman wrote back.

Why is Thurman – author of Jesus and the Disinherited and many other books – still influential to many today?

“It’s almost like a code that Thurman spoke — that’s how close he was to God,” Smith said. “Those days of sitting along the Halifax River in Florida, watching the storms come in the moonlight, he talks about the undulating waves spoke strongly to him. There was strength in the trees. Thurman talked to trees. I think that resonates even today. … The power of Thurman comes out of his deep meditation, his being a mystic, listening and paying attention to the clues. Life is always providing clues.”

What are some of the learnings Smith has gleaned from his lifetime of involvement with civil rights, with his work as a pastor and teacher in diverse settings?

Nonviolence. “I’m a strong believer in nonviolence,” Smith said. “You just can’t be angry all the time.”

“I’m a strong believer in nonviolence,” Smith said. “You just can’t be angry all the time.”

Interfaith listening.  This has been at the heart of Smith’s ministry. His recent sermon at First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn began with a moment of meditation and the sound of a singing bowl, from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

Jim Johnson, a Harvard-educated lawyer who was a parishioner of Smith’s at First church, told Hendrickson, Smith’s biographer, that Smith “created space in which those who believed could commune with those who had questions. And those who had questions would not feel uncomfortable. … At a time when anti-Muslim sentiment was high, and it is even worse now, he had imams delivering messages and cantors giving Old Testament scripture.”

Journaling. Smith’s lifelong spiritual practice has been to journal his thoughts and emotions. “When I see our ancestors being whipped and see the lashes on their backs, it just overwhelms me,” he said. “Instead of crying, I go write what I am feeling in my journal. … I sit quietly. I go to bed late. When the house is quiet, I hear the sounds. We live in a retirement center, so it’s the aches and pains of people who are there. I listen to that.”