Dr. Luther E. Smith Jr. is Professor Emeritus of Church and Community at the Candler School of Theology of Emory University. His current research focuses on the writings and correspondence of Howard Thurman, advocacy on behalf of children, and a spirituality of hope. Smith is an ordained elder in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
In 2009, Smith received the Phillips School of Theology “Bishops Thomas Hoyt and Paul Stewart Institutional Ministry Award for Outstanding Service to the Ministry of Academics.” In 2010, he was the recipient of Emory University’s “2010 Emory Williams Distinguished Teaching Award,” which is given “in recognition of the important role of classroom teaching in classroom teaching in collegiate and graduate education.”
Luther’s books include “Howard Thurman: The Mystic as Prophet”, “Intimacy and Mission: Intentional Community as Crucible for Radical Discipleship”, and “Pan-Methodist Social Witness Resource Book”.
Music by: @siryalibeats
Portrait Illustration: Olivia Lim
Patrick Reyes: Hey, what's going on. It's Dr. Patrick Reyes here. Have you ever wondered where the Sound of the Genuine, our title comes from? It comes from Howard Thurman, the mystic, poet, author, preacher, Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. And one of the cool things is we get to talk to one of his students, Luther Smith, now retired from Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. And also one of the founders of the Interfaith Movement for Children in the Atlanta area. Luther is not only a mentor to me, but to so many scholars of color across theological disciplines. I'm excited for you to listen in on this conversation with Dr. Smith.
All right, Dr. Smith - I am so glad that you are here on the Sound of the Genuine, and of all the people who should know where that term comes from, it should be you. And I want to know about what makes you come alive, but before we get to what you're up to, where you're at and all those things, I'm hoping you could take me back to your beginnings. Who are your people? Where'd you grow up? What were the joys and sounds and noises of your childhood?
Luther Smith: I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. I had a sister and older sister, and parents who were very involved in public education. My father became a school principal. My mother was a speech correctionist - and lived in a black community in St. Louis. What was really for me a very nurturing community where you knew the people in the neighborhood and you could basically rely upon them looking out for you. And had a very nurturing experience as a child in the family that I just experienced as being supportive emotionally, intellectually, and I think in terms of preparing me to be engaged with the larger world. I grew up in the Christian Methodist Episcopal church, it was really like second family to me. There are times when I felt as if I did anything that would be embarrassing in a public way, I would worry as much about how the church people would react as much as I would my immediate family.
So this tells you something about the extent to which that context, that family was important to me. It was a nurturing space. Like many black congregations, it was one in which you were always encouraged with whatever gifts you brought. That meant a lot to me. It was a church that had people in all sorts of economic levels, as would be true for many black congregations. You had people who were in some kind of domestic service role during the week, but then were leaders of major church organizations and had a standing among the people of the church as being ones who you would follow.
it was later in life beyond my childhood that I came to not only perceive this, but to recognize how the church was this place of standing, , where perhaps throughout the week, as a domestic worker, you were just receiving orders as to what you ought to be doing, but here in the church, people listened to you.
They recognized your gifts. They voted you into positions of guiding them in terms of what it meant to be fully involved in the life of the church, of the community, the deepening of their own religious commitment. And whether you were in some position that was less than, let's say a physician we had in the congregation, or a major educator in the congregation, all these persons were treated as counting. As really ones meriting your fullest respect. That is a kind of understanding that has informed my appreciation of people in all economic classes that I've encountered throughout my life.
I remember at age five in my family, discussions about the political realities in the country where I was truly hoping that Adelaide Stevenson would become the next president of the United States because he was more committed to issues of civil rights and social justice. So that was the first of many disappointments when it comes to elections, but that consciousness was there early. And it was only a year or two later that my mother had to tell me when we were downtown in a department store, that as much as I was begging her for some food in response to the lunch counter, because the aroma had just permeated that level of the department store, that I could not get any food there. We could not get any food there because of the discriminatory policies that still persisted in St.Louis at that particular time. So that was something that registered with me and actually never left in terms of understanding the kind of larger divisions in the country.
it was not long after that at age seven or eight when what happened with Emmett till in money, Mississippi came to public awareness. And I can still see his image in Jet magazine of this body that did not resemble anything like a human being it was so bloated and so distorted, but there he was in this open casket that his mother insisted upon, because some quite men said that he was being disrespectful to a white woman, and this is what he then experienced in terms of torture and death. It was a signal to me as to what happens in this larger country when white people perceive you as meriting this kind of a consequence because you've stepped out of line from what they felt was your place. So there was a racial consciousness that was very prevalent in my family. The discussions that would be held around the kitchen table with all of us politically as to what was occurring.
My church was one that was politically engaged, in which our pastoral leadership and members of the church were very involved in issues of civil rights and improving matters of public education. The political climate in St. Louis itself I feel deeply indebted to as an environment that provided me an awareness and a formation that has been with me and basically indicates what my career has been, my sense of a vocation has been throughout all of these years. I've never really stepped away from it. I've always felt it was a gift to which I'm indebted to all of those who contributed and made it possible.
At about age eight, our family moved into a neighborhood that was going through racial transition. And I entered an elementary school that was predominantly white at the time. It was the first year of full racial integration in the public school system in St. Louis. Of course, my parents prepared me for the kind of conflict that might arise from white students, in light of this being a time of some significant tension around issues of race. So you can't go through that without having this sense of who you are as a person within a larger social context and what it means for you to be aware of consequences of people misreading your true value and significance. My parents really wanted me to think of those who would perhaps say something derogatory about me, not as an instance than for any kind of assault upon persons - I was very frail and small so, you know that might not worked out too well if I had chosen to take such initiatives, but, but primarily in terms of respecting the individual who would say something derogatory about me, that they insisted was not true. And that it said more about the individual who was saying this than it had anything to say about me and what and who I was. That was crucial. It limited my need to be reactive in environments that I felt to be prejudicial. It helped me to understand who I was in those contexts and that my reacting to them in some negative way, would not alter who I was, my sense of self that, that I could carry that away from such encounters without feeling as if somehow or another, I failed to defend myself properly in some way or defend my race properly in some way.
This was a time when Martin Luther King and the Montgomery boycott was really receiving the sort of national and international attention on matters of civil rights and racial injustice in the United States. So I was deeply inspired by that movement and by his work in that movement and found myself really believing that any kind of future that was worth anticipating entailed things changing. And it wasn't long after I moved through adolescence that it was clear to me I wanted to be involved in things changing.
Patrick Reyes: I mean, it sounds like the nurturing community, the community that is holding you through all of this and really forming you and shaping you is this firm grounding for you to go out and seek, how do you do this? How do you do this work? So what is your next step as you think about your young adulthood as you imagine living into this legacy? what did you do next?
Luther Smith: Well none of our lives, or few of our lives are actually a straight trajectory from one place to another, where everything seems to fall in line. I was deeply involved in sports and that took on a major meaning for me - a couple of years boxing, and then running track and cross country and having leadership roles in my school. And music was really important to me. All of those things are, a part of, I think, most adolescents, and so none of that was sacrificed in terms of the earlier kind of social commitment to which I've just given expression.
In my high school, it was maybe 60% white, 40% African-American when I started. By the time I graduated, it was probably 80% African-American and 20% white. Another school had been built, fairly close by - most of the white students chose to go there. In this period of adolescence, there is this profound awareness of even how our life in school is shaped by the changing realities of the city, of the educational system.
And as students, of course, we talked about that. What does it mean to have classmates, so many of whom you had developed a deep relationship, what does it mean for them to choose to be at another school? What does it mean for us to have sporting events where the racial tensions are very clear depending upon the school? This matter of racial identity was something that persisted, of course, throughout high school. Here I am standing at a bus stop and the police come up. They forced me to go up against the wall and they pat me down. When asked why are you doing this, I received the very, very common response you know it is, ‘well we've received notice about someone who looks like you.’ I didn't believe that then, I don't believe it now. I just felt it was one of these stop and frisk incidents. But I knew that this kind of targeting was pervasive. And that I had to be really careful about what my response would be because basically that whole system of criminal justice was not going to be in my favor, as innocent as I might be. So there's also this distrust of the criminal justice system in terms of how it operated. Sometimes you look to the courts, you celebrate outcomes, not just for individuals, but what's happening socially. But there are so many disappointments that you don't come to rely upon the courts as being necessarily the purveyors of justice. So that's another dimension of my growing up that established my mindset about so many things. What was also clear to me is that any significant opportunity to pursue a career that would be responding to this sense of uplift entailed getting an education.
It was certainly the case in my own immediate family. My parents were the only ones among their siblings to get a college education. My sister, she became a public school teacher. She had a college education. All of them had their master's degrees. And so it was the most natural thing for me to understand that going to college and using that as a time of discernment for myself would be what not only was expected of me, but what I wanted to do and really looked forward to that process. So I went to Washington University in St. Louis. I wasn't certain about what a major would be, but one of the major aspects of that shift was moving from a school where I was really well-known. I was president of my class. I was involved in all sorts of areas of recognition to then a university where there were very, very few black students. I think there were probably in this freshman class at Washington University, maybe four or five of us? There's this complete almost disorientation from being in a place of not only being known, but feeling as if you really know how to navigate the realities of this place, to a college where, I not only had that kind of disorientation of it being strange and new and with other students who were so different than the students with whom I went to school, but also perhaps not so positive reaction that you have to freedom. That when the bell rings, you don't necessarily show up in the next class and someone's taking attendance.
I discovered great joy in being in the media room and having access to all these wonderful jazz albums and sometimes I would be listening through the beginning of the next class. And of course, there comes a point when you decide, no use going to that class cause I've just stayed out too long. So it was not an easy transition for me but I stayed with it and had some wonderful experiences with classmates.
The on-campus YM/YWCA was an important place for me in developing relationships as well as then getting involved in programs that responded to some issues in inner city St. Louis, providing some tutoring opportunities there for those involved in public housing, the youth involved in public housing, sponsoring programs on campus. Some of them related to the politics the day. That kind of engagement was really important in my formation. It gave me a place of identity and of service.
I got deeply involved with the national program of Model United Nations which provided some opportunities to go to New York and do the national work of organizing students from all over the country. But then another program that was celebrating the anniversary of the United Nations, where we had students from all over the world and I was responsible for the speakers from the United Nations addressing the students. That whole orientation to that work was just something significantly different for me and important for me. And to have awareness of the international setting and conflicts. So, you know, that just took me to a whole other level of awareness of the world reality in which I was serving. That whole experience was important in my formation.
I spent a summer in Mexico, which gave me a sense of another context and people and what it meant to be involved to some extent in the religious life of a congregation, but also going to school there, in terms of a program that was advancing my awareness of the politics of Mexico, as well as the social realities that are there. I was moving through college…well - I wouldn't say with any kind of exceptional service in courses that is, but I was making it.
One of the most important experiences I had in college was…this was in my very first year, Patrick, and feeling something of the disorientation of being in this place, my professor started down to the podium from which he was going to lecture. It was one of these places of stadium seating. And as he passed me he said, “Good afternoon, Mr. Smith.” I was stunned that he knew my name.
I was stunned to be recognized in this class that had well over a hundred students in it. And that made a difference for me. And it was a sociology class. It made a difference in the way in which I performed in that class. It made a difference in my selecting my major, which was sociology/ anthropology.
The sense that I'm not just lost to whatever else is happening in the school, for him to call my name said that I was being seen. There is something about that which is both, seemingly trivial, but also I experienced it as monumental. And I doubt that he even has any awareness of what that moment meant for me. But there are times that I wonder what would my educational preparation in the university have been like without that kind of transformation that came just from having my, my name called just from being seen and recognized?
Patrick Reyes: I mean to use your words, sounds like a disorientation and an orientation happening. A disorientation, I mean, you're not…you're still in St. Louis. It's not like you got up and moved a thousand miles away from home, but you're also having this experience. Learning the international context at the same time, you're having this moment of transformation by being named, but also just formation. Formation that St. Louis isn't the whole world. As you come through college and you think, okay, now what am I going to do with this education, this opportunity, this transformation, this disorientation experience? What is it that you start to think this is where I want to make the impact on the world?
Luther Smith: So I just mentioned that sociology was my major and we had some of the renowned sociologist in the country at Washington University. Several of them had built their careers on their study of Pruitt-Igoe, which is one of the most infamous public housing projects in the country. Thousands of people living there, it was poorly designed and all sorts of dysfunctional behaviors arose in stacking people without resources into a place where resources were not provided. And even the very structure of the buildings that they provided for people were not attentive to folks' needs. So it became a high crime area and all other kinds of problems arose from there. So a number of my professors had these at least national, if not international reputations, from the publications they had done on their research in Pruitt-Igoe and I took classes from them.
But I became really disenchanted with thinking about being a sociologist as a career. I thought, this isn't the relationship that I'm wanting with people where I'm just getting information from them, but we're not working to change people's lives as much as we seem to be working to publish information that may change people's lives, it may have some effect on policy makers, but a lot of academic research - fine research - makes no changes in terms of public policy. There's something more that's involved in that kind of transformation of a situation. And to take another class about doing research where clearly, in this particular professor's class, what was understood is that you do not get involved in what is happening in the context in which you're doing research, because then you affect the outcome by your involvement.
Ironically, the professor who called my name in that class was one who had a completely different approach to doing sociological research. It was one that was often identified in terms of urban anthropology, where you're in the context and you're observing yes, but you're not functioning as if somehow or another you're not someone who is there and has a voice and perhaps is seeking to affect change and writing about that. So this was a controversy among sociologists and anthropologists about proper role. And it was a controversy that did not in any way inspire me to choose that direction in terms of my own sense of calling and my own career.
And then I looked at social work and so I took courses from the graduate school of social work. And George Warren Brown School of Social Work was one of the most prominent ones in the country at the time. And I had some inspiring professors. But I had in the class social workers, people who had their undergraduate degrees, some of whom were working on a master's degree or a doctoral degree in social work - I was still an undergraduate - and they just all sounded depressed. They would comment upon their work and the limitations of the system in which they were working. There was nothing in that for me that I found inspiring and to say, I want to be where they are. I want to be doing these things. The professor didn't counter their depression with tales of, well this is how you can change the system. They all seemed rather distraught by what they couldn't do for people who were in need of help.
This would be 1967, a strong time for the civil rights movement in the sense of the kind of national attention that continues to occur, but also a strong time in terms of the challenges to the movement that are occurring within the black community itself. Those who feel as if the civil rights movement had had its day and was not as relevant as it had been in the early period. It's that kind of not only difference, but at times, turmoil, that I found fascinating in terms of how do I take seriously, the routes that inspired me now being challenged?
And how do I come to understand that challenge as having some legitimacy for the kind of freedom that we're all wanting? And recognizing the complex options that are being argued. And I found that to be important. It wasn't distressing to me. It didn't deter me from wanting to be involved in this.
But one of the things that was very impressive for me was the number of religious persons, religious leaders who are engaged in this civil rights effort. Some engaged in terms of the traditional images of the civil rights movement, others looking more toward some of the affirmations of black power. I just found myself seeing ministry as an option for attending to the social consciousness that entailed involvement and not just study, that entailed working toward a difference, that entailed putting one's life on the line and having that kind of sacrificial as well as I think sacramental understanding of what this could be.
I decided that seminary would be a place for me to go. I was not interested in being a local pastor but I felt like it would be a place of preparation, and in the ongoing discernment that I would have. And if I became a minister fine, but it would be more like a minister in line with someone like Martin Luther King Jr., when he wasn't the pastor of the church, or even a Jesse Jackson at the time and the work he was doing in Chicago in Operation Bread Basket. All of these were really vital influences for me and I entered seminary with this. I then chose to have as field education in the seminary, places that related to what I've been sharing about my social consciousness.
I worked with a community organization that was attending to matters of poverty, it was a government program attending to those matters of poverty, but the resources were provided for helping people with job training, for example. But they had people who were there in the office who were doing other kinds of protests really challenging many of the governmental decisions that were being developed for people of economic low standing. It was just a thrilling environment for me to work there with the various personalities. Many of whom had made all sorts of important public stands in St. Louis for racial equality and economic justice and dealing with criminal justice issues. It was a rich environment.
The other thing though was you meet some people who, they're working under the banner of all of this about which I'm speaking, but they're not giving themselves in the way that you would consider honorable. It seems like they're in it for themselves, or these are sort of placeholders for them to do other things. So it was, it was a learning opportunity for me
And then the next couple of years I became the community organizer in East St. Louis, Illinois, which was right across the street of the a welfare rights organization, where I did lot of work in attending to the needs of welfare recipients to advocate for themselves. It's a national movement. It was a community, Patrick, in which 70% of the city was estimated to be in some way related to the welfare system, either in terms of people being recipients or people in a professional capacity within the system itself. And there were all sorts of terrible realities as it related to that system that occurred just in the way in which it functioned, yes, but also the way in which the program was not doing what the program legally was supposed to be doing. I got busy. I was the coordinator. I really did research on what should recipients be getting and we took over the welfare office and really did push for change.
And I worked with a group that was modeling themselves on the Black Panther organization and we were working in the same building. They had a leader who was not happy with me. The understanding that others had he perceives himself as the community leader and your success with this organization, the kind of publicity that you're getting both in St. Louis and in East St. Louis about this work, this makes him unhappy unless you're submitting to what he wants. This was not a veiled kind of threat either because I can remember we had a nun and a priest who had aligned with them as they understood themselves to be in solidarity and one day they came back and the nun had a black eye, the priest had been all beaten up and his people had addressed them for being out of line. We had people who would disappear after so long if they were in some kind of conflict with them. I had my car firebombed. I was receiving death threats while I was there. But I stayed with it because I felt like this was vocation. This was my calling. This is where God would want me to be, and we were making a difference in the lives of tens of thousands of people there. I had established some relationships with folks who were really committed to transforming realities and I cherished the opportunity to make use of those connections even when their superiors were not aware of what they were doing. They found through our work there the opportunity to make a difference. And I delighted in that. That was formative for me in a variety of ways. One, about community organizing itself, how to do that successfully - what it would mean in terms of giving myself fully to this. And I decided that this is what I wanted to do upon coming out of seminary. I was determined to work either around the Pruitt-Igoe area or in the East St. Louis area or some other area of St. Louis that would be around these issues of justice.
I had three job offers to do community organizing and in the hour just before I was to decide among the three, chose this invitation from my seminary to direct a program for black clergy and laity called Education for Black Urban Ministries and provided the opportunity for many to get an associate's or bachelor's degree, as a terminal degree or as that which would enable them to go on for seminary work. And I was assured that there would be the opportunity to continue to do some community organizing work, but this would be among clergy in the St. Louis area. I did that, bringing pastors together around social issues and becoming a voice to address those social issues. And we had a number of them to arise in which we finally had a religious community, a truly ecumenical religious community that was speaking out on these issues. It's while doing this work that I had the opportunity to go to a conference, the National Committee of Black Church Men in New York, where Howard Thurman was going to be the speaker.
Oh my, he was closing out the conference. So I had about three days where I kept anticipating, when is this Howard Thurman going to arrive? What does he look like? I had not seen a picture of him. I'd never heard him, but I had heard so much about him and had heard clergy who we're struggling to give expression to what having heard Thurman meant to them. The time finally arrived for the closing banquet. Howard Thurman was there with his daughter and there I was waiting for Howard Thurman to blow us away with the kind of animated, forceful speaking that had characterized so many preachers at that point in time.
And I had anticipated that from Thurman that we're all going to be on our feet indicating how we're delighted that he has voiced what it has meant for the black church to be at the forefront of so much in terms of justice and issues. And that we're ready to march. Thurman got up and he began with the 139th Psalm, but the way in which he prayed this Psalm, and I didn't even realize it was 139th Psalm because when Thurman works with it, it just takes on a whole character and meaning of its own.
This was all 180 degrees away from what I was expecting, and yet hearing Thurman was a transformative experience for me - vocationally as well as personally. I found myself so enraptured by what he said and how he said it. There just aren't any words when you have what is understood to be a religious experience. That's what it was for me. And I went to my room trying to, trying to understand this. I had a room that had roaches in it. The hotel was full. And so I was afraid to complain too much at that time in my life. It may have been the first hotel room that I had arranged to stay in so I didn't know all the protocols of making a demand, to be in a roach free room. I returned to my room, had not been looking forward to it. After this address of Thurman, I would just lay on the bed and I'd look around and I'd see a roach here, I'd see a roach there and I just felt at one with the roaches. I just, I wasn't out to stomp on them. I wasn't out to complain. It was just like, ah, we're all here together aren't we?
After that, I read everything I can that Thurman has written and there were some LPs that Thurman had made and I listened to all of those. And it was a year later heading to the next conference that my wife suggested, so why don't you tell Thurman you want to see him. I had just started doctoral studies in American studies but I wasn't thinking of Thurman as a subject of research. I just felt that I need to at least ask if I might see him.
And I wrote him saying, you know, I don't have an agenda, there was no central question or anything. I just feel that it's important to meet with you - it's meaningful for my life. And he gave me a day to come out and be with him. And that became the start. We had a friendship for a couple of years before I even indicated that I thought he really could be a subject of some writing that I would be interested in doing that I thought was important and he was open to that.
So there was this time of interview, as well as our ongoing visiting with one another that resulted in not only my dissertation, but also what would be publications on Thurman and the other ways in which I have been really intending to have his legacy to go forth for us.
Patrick Reyes: I mean, Luther, you're going to have to tell me about this balance because I'm drawing all the way back to your experience organizing And that story you told me about the social workers and how they just looked defeated. You were coming alive in St. Louis doing this, organizing, effecting change, making all of these things happen, these things that you had hoped for and your voice was even going up. Like you were excited about this work and you meet Thurman! Just the cadence, like this moment you're having with the roaches, that the world is a little bit more intentional. The pace has shifted a little bit in your life. Tell us about how you go from fast paced organizing, this constantly being on guard to make change, receiving death threats, to deep study and time with writing, thinking, spirituality. Tell us a little about this as a vocational...maybe it's not a shift? But I am curious because it sounds like a shift for me, your voice, even the pace of the way you're telling the story shifted as you started talking about Thurman.
Luther Smith: I think it was a shift, but it it's a shift along a continuum rather than a shift away from the path that I was on. My engagement with Thurman resonated with everything else in terms of social justice and organizing and systemic change. I saw that in Thurman, but something that really, I think spoke to me was Thurman's emphasis upon the person.
At this time when I was deeply involved in the community work, a lot of the emphasis, especially among some of the leaders of the black power movement was, you as a person mean little. It's for the community that we give ourselves, it's for the people that we give ourselves. But Thurman spoke to something that had been part of my religious formation since childhood. And that is, each person is important. That God cares for each person. That you are not inconsequential to the kind of transformations that we're needing in the more public domain. You have significance, so that as you are making a sacrifice, the sacrifice that is being made is significant.
It's a treasure, it's not anything to be diminished in terms of its meaning. And we need to relate to one another in ways that honor that. In some of these settings that I've spoken about, I could see the contradiction, for example, in talking about non-violence, we are non-violent, but internally people were very violent. So I had spent time in an environment where the rhetoric was that of non-violence, but the reality of violence in dealing with one another was very evident.
And you had to be aware of that if you were not only concerned about your life, but you were concerned about the work that you were doing and how it would persist. So Thurman had an emphasis of authenticity that really spoke to me. I felt that it resonated with Dr. King and what he was about. I felt that it spoke to how we could be going about beloved community, that we're honoring the person as well as honoring the larger purposes for which God has called us into being a community of justice. I felt it reflected what Jesus was about. And, in fact, I found in Thurman, a way of understanding community and the means of community formation. And in his own life of working, for example, at fellowship church and establishing this kind of interfaith, multicultural gathering that crossed all kinds of boundaries. All of that was inspiring to me and it represented to me someone who had the vision of beloved community, someone who had made the connection with some of the pivotal figures, like Gandhi - who I grew up admiring and King - someone who was not removed from the very things to which I was deeply committed and who is much wiser about the practicalities of all of this than a lot of people know who only reads Thurman's meditations.
There was a connection for me that indicated this is someone with whom I will walk the journey for the rest of my life. He is a companion for the journey. I say that as someone who both admired Thurman and who engages Thurman with a critical mindset. And I feel like Thurman appreciates that. I think he appreciated it then, I think his spirit appreciates it now. He wasn't interested in adoration. He wasn't interested in having followers as much as being about something of God's dream for us.
I so resonated with and felt like, this is the way we do it, this is the way we go about it. And by saying, ‘this is the way we do it,’ I'm not talking about replicating what Thurman himself did, but I'm speaking about having an understanding of what kinds of approaches contribute to community and what kinds of approaches fail the creation of the kind of community that God is calling us into.
And when I started my doctoral work, I really had no intent of being a professor. I started my doctoral work because I just wanted to study, I wanted my mind to expand and understand these forces of life that have shaped people have shaped nations and I felt it would shape me. I was very moved by the breadth of Thurman's own academic achievement. But more than his academic achievement, by the breadth of his curiosity and the kinds of things he felt it was important to know about if we're going to be persons working on behalf of community. So all of that was going on during my doctoral studies, and it was somewhere near the end of the studies, it seemed as if teaching would be a possibility for continuing to pursue the realities of not only community but of transformation that would take seriously the religious life. And lo and behold, I was asked - I didn't pursue that position - I was asked to consider joining the Candler faculty for a position in church and community. And so just the title itself, speaks to what I feel had been occurring in my own formation and my own discernment.
I knew my responsibility as a teacher was certainly going to be in the classroom, yes, but I was also hired to direct the second year of contextual education at Candler that focused on institutions and systemic change and where every student in the masters of divinity program would not only be in a context, but have to do personal reflection as well as group reflection about the realities of that context and what they mean in terms of one's commitment to the church, or one's commitment to some other kind of vocational expression. To direct a program where you feel like every student can be shaped by the kind of questions and the kind of situations that I think few seminaries at the time were having was also a draw. So the classroom, the direction of the program, and I came here and I got involved with nonprofit organizations as an ongoing expression of that commitment as we were dealing with matters of public housing and the welfare system at the time as it was called and discovering people in the community who themselves were very interested in transformation. All of that seemed to come together as a piece.
Patrick Reyes: I mean it feels almost like a script has been written. You know, All of these experiences are coming that you're not just a scholar, you’re not just the professor. You're not just a person who is deeply rooted in your spirit and in church communities to make systemic change. As you have journeyed on as Candler faculty, as someone who's affecting change in the Atlanta area, how do you understand your own sense of vocation and call? That all of these things fit together? There is no separation between the scholar, the nerd, Luther Smith and then the community organizer, Luther Smith. This is a whole call. This is who you are. Tell me how do you maintain all of this, especially over a career?
Luther Smith: I feel deeply indebted to the church in which I grew up, where I felt that politics and what's happening in the larger social realm and being a people of faith were expressed there. I think also deeply indebted to my family that, really supported the ways in which I would be thinking and talking. We could have some heated debates. We could be very different on some issues. There wasn't a difference about the matters of justice but I feel very privileged that my family could create that kind of place of formation in a way that was also nurturing, full of laughter full of humor. You know, sometimes you only get through the tragedies of the injustice when you're able to just turn something in a way that brings forth a sense of humor about what's going on. You know, enriched by it so that it's not that you ever are denying the harsh realities or the weight of these harsh realities, but neither do you have to be defeated by them.
I grew up with a sense of agency where I could take the initiative in pursuing something. And that I didn't have to settle with an outcome that was less than what I understood my capacities to be. It means something when a mother is thinking you just have possibilities beyond what perhaps you are demonstrating and what you should be doing, but you have it. And I believe that! And I think she was right. She didn't beat anything into me, she just encouraged. And my father encouraged. And there came a point when I took the reins of that encouragement and went with it because it became an expression of my own dreaming. It became an expression of my own heart. It became a way to focus and to delight in the focus that I was having and to benefit from it.
You know, deciding to do doctoral work, that was an initiative of mine. No one was encouraging me to do it. I had a professor who said, you only do doctoral work if you're planning to be a researcher or to teach. And I smiled and I thanked him. I had plans for neither, but I knew I wanted to do it because this is the kind of preparation that would enable me to go forward in a way that my mind and my spirit would benefit. It's this sense of agency, the sense of initiative without having it to somehow or another be aligned with a blueprint. I went into seminary not having any idea what I would do or why, but I felt it was the place to be. I went into doctoral work that way, but I just felt it was the place to be. And I came to Candler with the understanding that it feels like the place where vocation would thrive, but my feeling was always that as long as I was ready to leave, I could be there.
I didn't have to sacrifice my passion. I didn't have to sacrifice a sense of what God has called me to be and do in order to get tenure. That I would take seriously what it took to get tenure - I bought into that - I did my scrub work, which is expected in getting tenure, but I also did the academic work that is expected in getting tenure. But I worked on the things that I felt resonated with a calling as to why I was there, with a sense that if this isn't appreciated, I'm happy. I followed my passion. I will look elsewhere. But I'm not selling my soul to fulfill criteria that other people have that I do not participate in, in some way in declaring yes, this is for me. If I haven't measured up, I'm ready to accept that. If I have in some way said yeah, this is what I ought to be doing and I didn't measure up to that, I can take that. But I did not want to come to the conclusion of the tenure process having pleased the institution and failed myself.
Patrick Reyes: So this is a question that's on so many of our potential doctoral students minds, the doctoral students we work with at FTE - early and even mid career faculty members who are thinking through that question in particular, how their values match up to the institution they serve at, the work they want to do.
As you think about your own sense of call and as you look back, how much of your sense of your writing, your teaching, your scholarship, your own sense of vocation is driven by - you said, you know - kind of comfort with yourself, this is what I'm passionate about, this is what I'm called to do in the world - and how much is it is driven by the communities in which you find yourself committed to in Atlanta or St. Louis? How much of that sense of call comes from the internal conversation you're having with yourself and those with your community?
Luther Smith: Yeah, I take seriously the way in which my antenna are tuned to the community and its needs. I choose to respond to that, again speaking about agency. I also am aware of how diverse those expectations can be. As you've heard me speak about some of my previous experiences in the life of the community and that one has to be very careful of identifying a voice that represents the community that perhaps is not representing all of the community, if any voice does that.
I know that it means being really discerning about what you are perceiving about the community, both the larger community and the church community, because I think one of the things that I also appreciated from Howard Thurman, is something that I brought to my awareness of Thurmond. It didn't come out from meeting Thurman. In fact, I think most of my theology and most of my ways of looking at matters were actually formed before Howard Thurmond. What my experience with Thurman did was to deepen the sense of roots that relate to that perspective that I had. So much of it is primarily experiential and family. I had a father who was very, very liberal in his own theology and understanding of the church.
And so we could have a very critical understanding of the church while we were still in it. I grew up and served as an adult with a critical perspective about the church. Some things that I saw were…they weren't messianic, they were just messy. This is the dimension of the church that makes it the church and it can be so extreme as to actually drive people away from the church.
But, if you find the perfect church I suspect you will change that character of the church by joining it. It's just one of those things that doesn't exist. So I accepted that and I accept that as the reality of the community - the community can be disappointing. So how am I both hearing the community perceiving/understanding, how am I hearing the academic community perceiving and understanding, and how am I taking seriously my own sense of calling?
Taking Luther seriously has been key for me in all of this kind of discernment. To name for myself, what is this passion? What is this calling, to be clear about that to understand what reinforces it and what distracts from it, to be taking myself seriously. And one of the things that I just find very helpful about Thurman is how doing that is crucial to any kind of outreach you want to do in terms of the larger world, because otherwise if you don't know who you are, and if you haven't given attention to sustaining who you are, then you offer the community, you offer the church a very fragmented person and it doesn't help anybody. And it doesn't help you.
How do you take seriously who you are and give yourself time and not listen to the voices that simply want to characterize that way of being as ‘oh you’re self-centered.’ Somehow or another, you think more of yourself than you do of what others need. And I think Thurman's way of understanding what it means to be genuine, what it means to be authentic, entails that kind of discipline.
And it's been helpful for me to understand that in this whole journey that I'm speaking about, even before Thurman but especially as, you know, my life had evolved to where the decisions get more complicated and you're making the kinds of decisions that may be charting a path for you for the next 10, 15, 20 years or longer. And you're responsible for it.
And so what does it mean to also be working in a vocation that is attending to a world in which you and your children will be growing up? What kinds of attention am I giving to that? So I think prophetic memory is not only remembering the past and matters of the prophets and their voices for justice and community and Jesus and his witness related to justice and community and love - it is that. I think prophetic remembering is also remembering the future. In remembering the future, it provides us a vision toward which our lives must be given, in some disciplined way. And a future into which I may not go and certainly the one I'm dreaming, I don't expect a certain level of fulfillment to be occurring in that.
But I do know my experience has been the kind of remembering the future that I have, and my vision of beloved community has been experienced by me in the journey itself. I'm not just waiting for time beyond time or so generationally removed from me that this work, this service, this study, these interactions, the kinds of transformations that have occurred all for me had some element of opening where I've experienced beloved community in it. And I think if I miss that, if I dismiss it as well, yeah, we had that, but what about all of that that has not been…I think if I miss that, I miss the joy of life. I miss the joy of this vocation. I miss the joy of being an academic.
Patrick Reyes: Luther, I want to just say thank you for sharing so much of your story. And I want to just say, to parrot back also some of the advice you have, it sounds as if though these lessons you learned at church, the dinner table in your home, being seen and recognized at Washington University, the community organizing, getting to know the people, having a sense of self, being okay with who Luther is as you develop that out from Thurman's work and your own relationship with him. From my sense of the communities that we've been involved in, the networks and the people that are the lineage, direct lineage from your mentorship and your community organizing in Atlanta that I benefit from being a secondary ring of your beloved community. As you said, it's messy, it's not clean and that's okay. That part is the human part, falling deeply in love with this. So I just want to say thank you. This is such a gift and such a joy.
Luther Smith: Thank you for the invitation.
Patrick Reyes: Hey, we want to thank you for taking some time to listen to the Sound of the Genuine. We've done two full seasons of this show. If you have enjoyed these episodes, please subscribe and drop a review. If you have stories you want to see for season three and beyond, please write us! Go to fteleaders.org and go to the contact page and let us know who you want to hear on this show. As always, I’ve got to thank my team, Heather Wallace, Elsie Barnhart, Diva Morgan Hicks and of course, @siryalibeats for his great music. It is a gift to host this show and to listen to such great stories and it doesn't happen without you, the listener. So thank you and we'll see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine.