Jun. 11, 2014
Ask colleagues, students, and former students to describe Luther E. Smith Jr., and three words surface repeatedly: wise, passionate, and humble. This trademark combination of traits has left an indelible impression on Candler and the world—an impression whose echo will resound long after Smith retires this August as professor of church and community.
An activist, scholar, and teacher, Smith has spent the past 35 years at Candler shaping ecclesial and societal leaders, impressing upon them the need for justice and inclusivity and teaching them how to actively work toward transformation in the world around them. Above all, he is a champion of community.
“One of the things I've stressed with students over the years is that concern for the community is not an elective,” Smith says. “It's not an option. It's fundamental to what we see as the call for faithfulness.”
True to that call, Smith has worked as a humanitarian and activist everywhere from homeless shelters and welfare agencies to boardrooms and government buildings in his effort to create meaningful change. He has dedicated his time and energy to groups including the Pan-Methodist Campaign for Children in Poverty and L’Arche, an international organization that promotes intentional faith communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together.
In his work with communities, Smith has modeled how passion for social justice can be turned into action. When he noticed in 2001 that the church was nowhere to be found among the social service agencies in Georgia advocating for children on issues such as poverty and sexual exploitation, he worked with others to form the Interfaith Children’s Movement to mobilize people of faith to address the challenges facing children.
These kinds of commitments could be a full-time job, but Smith gracefully managed his activism alongside his work as a scholar and teacher.
Early on, he gained a reputation among scholars as an authority on influential theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman, making Thurman’s teaching and witness not simply more accessible to seminarians, scholars, and pastors, but formative, if not essential, according to David Jenkins, associate professor in the practice of practical theology. Smith authored Howard Thurman: The Mystic as Prophet, co-edited two volumes of The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, edited Howard Thurman: Essential Writings, and co-edited of a CD collection of Thurman’s lectures, sermons, and meditations, called The Living Wisdom of Howard Thurman: A Visionary for Our Times.
A fourth book, Intimacy and Mission: Intentional Community as Crucible for Radical Discipleship, takes readers inside Sojourners, Koinonia, Voices of Calvary, Patchwork Central, and Church of the Messiah for a critical read of the structures and dynamics of these intentional communities.
Ordained as an elder in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Smith arrived at Candler in 1979 to direct the second year of Contextual Education, which at the time was devoted to communal expressions of ministry. In 1990, he transitioned to teaching full time, becoming best known for courses on church and community; the work of Howard Thurman; spirituality and community transformation; and the church’s mission to children in poverty. And along with shaping Candler’s students and helping them answer their calls to ministry, Smith shaped the institution itself.
“Luther has always been the quiet conscience of the faculty,” says Carol Newsom, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Old Testament, who came to the school one year after Smith. “I can remember so many times in faculty meetings and in committee settings where he would quietly point out the moral dimensions of the issue at hand that we were in danger of losing sight of, or the ways in which the faculty was defaulting to a perspective that was not truly inclusive. Luther’s moral authority within the faculty was so strong that he didn’t have to raise his voice. But when he spoke the truth, we recognized it.”
Elizabeth Bounds, associate professor of Christian ethics, considers one of Smith’s most enduring accomplishments to be ensuring that Black Church Studies is now an integral part of life at Candler, not simply the title of a program.
“When I came to Candler, I knew every African American student,” Smith recalls. “You could seat the African American student population around a couple of tables. Now we have one of the largest percentages of African American students in theological education. I'm proud to be part of an institution that has this kind of diversity."
Smith also takes pride in Candler’s increase in faculty diversity, noting that “you don’t get to this place without intentionality”; but that doesn’t mean that he’s been content to rest on such issues, to stop pushing. He regularly—and gently—challenges those in within his circle of influence.
Sally Sarratt 14T says she appreciates how Smith’s challenges to his students prompted thoughtful class discussions, pointing to his practice of bringing to class provocative newspaper editorials from the time of segregation.
“Then he would ask: ‘How integrated is your world today?’” recalls Sarratt, who adds that Smith’s class on Howard Thurman also challenged her to deepen her spiritual practice of journaling.
Indeed, almost every student who passed through Smith’s classroom found their faith deepened and their ministry strengthened by these challenges. The Rev. Dr. Cathy Jamieson-Ogg 89T still remembers a task from her Church and Community class in which she had to partner with a local church, study the needs of the community around the church, and use the resources of the church to meet those needs.
“In every appointment, I have repeated that homework assignment,” she says, citing resulting ministries that range from housing for the poor to emergency assistance to grief seminars.
Smith challenged his students to expand their thinking and push their boundaries, but he did so by first providing them with a secure foundation of compassion.
“For me, it’s been important for students to know that I am caring about them,” Smith says. “And not just caring about how they’re responding to assignments in my course – caring for the fuller range of issues that are occurring for them beyond the classroom itself.”
Smith’s power to produce lasting impressions on his students is one reason he has garnered numerous teaching accolades, including the 2010 Emory Williams Distinguished Teaching Award, Emory University’s highest award for excellence in teaching. But according to Jenkins, Smith reached legendary status as a professor for more than his brilliant pedagogy and his embodiment of the virtues and characteristics of a leader committed to peacebuilding and conflict transformation.
“Luther is beloved by students because his classes become ‘a crucible where radical discipleship is forged,’ to use his own words. His classes become church.”
And it’s not a one-sided proposition, Smith says. "For me, teaching is never just one way of giving. What I have received from students as they’ve opened their lives to what we've focused on in class has been as transformative for me as I hear that the course has been for them."
Newsom says that it’s hard to imagine Candler without Luther Smith, a sentiment that decades of students would echo. Yet as Smith trades the classroom for other venues, he is already imagining his next ministry opportunities as he works toward fluency in Spanish so he might better relate to native speakers in Atlanta. For him, this phase of life “isn’t one of shutting down, but of opening up.”
“I’m not retiring from my passions,” Smith says with his signature wide smile. “I am retiring from grading papers.”
*Photos by Cindy Brown 09T.