For 29 years Rev. Thomas E. Smith has been an advocate for justice and a leader in the Pittsburgh community as the pastor of Monumental Missionary Baptist Church, located in the Hill District. Now after many years of saving souls, he will start a new journey of “addressing issues of struggle on a larger stage,” as he calls it.
In December 2013, Rev. Smith preached his last sermon as the pastor of the Wylie Avenue church, officially retiring. On March 28, his congregation, friends and family celebrated his retirement and years of service with a banquet at the University Hilton Garden Inn in Oakland.
“I love Monumental, and I’m very grateful for how they’ve demonstrated their love to me and my family. They’ve been very supportive over the years and as I move on, I pray that God will continue to bless them and find them a new leader that will take them to higher heights,” said Rev. Smith. “This is not a retirement from the ministry, just a transition into another phase of the work.”
It was 36 years ago that the Richmond, Va. born and raised preacher received his call to the ministry. He had returned home from the army and was working for the U.S. Postal Service as a postal clerk, and deejay on the side, he said, when he had been involved in a severe accident that made him realize he needed to be more serious about his life and commit himself to the Lord.
After taking classes at a local university, he was led to the seminary, where he received a full scholarship. Although he attended the seminary, he said he never quite knew what God had planned for him to do in the ministry. It was one Sunday during his last year in the seminary in 1977, when he was called to preach a sermon at First Baptist Church City Point in Hopewell, Va., which was without a preacher due to his passing. After preaching that one Sunday, he later received a call to take the position as their pastor, where he served for six years.
But it was in 1984, after accepting an invitation to preach at Monumental by Rev. Richard Twiggs, that Rev. Smith found his true home. He came, he preached and in January 1985 he was installed as the pastor. Under his direction, the church implemented several programs and services, such as the New Members Training Class, the Board of Christian Education, the Food Share Program, the Prison Ministry, Boys and Girls Scouts, drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, and much more.
“Reverend Smith is going to be sorely missed, not only in the church, but in the community and the city of Pittsburgh, because of all the things he’s accomplished,” said Deacon Frank Boyd, a member of Monumental for 22 years. “He always went above and beyond the call of duty. It’s going to be hard to replace a Thomas E. Smith. We just want someone led by God.”
Equality and advocating for justice has always been a passion of Rev. Smith. He credits it to his upbringing, his family values and his always being around people with the same passion.
“I grew up in the South, in a segregated city during the time of Jim Crow, so I understood what segregation was about and the consequence of that in terms of opportunities for my family. I saw my mother work to death as a cafeteria worker, my father was a janitor; so we didn’t have a lot, but we had a strong family,” Rev. Smith said. “It instilled in me the need to change the conditions and help the people being denied opportunities.”
During his time in Pittsburgh, Rev. Smith said some of his greatest accomplishments have been working with people concerned and committed to improving conditions, along with serving as the president of the Pittsburgh Unit of the NAACP; chairman of the Thomas Merton Center, chairman of the Center for Family Excellence and chairman of the Hill District Ministers Inc.; and more importantly and most significant, serving as the executive secretary of the Allegheny Union Baptist Association and the first executive secretary for the Baptist State Convention. Reverend Smith has also spent 20 years working with the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization and its Pastors for Peace initiative. It is this work, he said, which has propelled him into the next phase of his ministry.
“Being apart of the IFCO and serving as chairman for 12 years, gave me a greater perspective of the struggle and called me to this phase of my ministry, to address some issues on a larger scale,” he said.
Reverend Smith, who has already relocated to Florida, said he plans to spend time with his family, which consists of his three daughters born to he and his late wife, Jane D. Hargrove, his six grandchildren and his one great-grand child, along with pursuing his work with the IFCO. He looks forward to assisting in the process of developing an initiative with Haiti to work alongside Haitians to address their issues and concerns, in addition to working with the people of Cuba to continue the organization’s 15-year project of developing a medical school program.
While no new leader has been chosen for Monumental, Rev. Smith said the next leader has to be called by God. “I feel God called me and just as God made a way for me, he’ll make a way for the next leader.”
Reverend Glenn Grayson, pastor of Wesley Center AMEZ Church in the Hill District spoke on his relationship with Rev. Smith, along with other retired Hill District ministers Rev. Johnnie Monroe, of Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church, and Rev. J.V.A. Winsett, of Ebenezer Baptist Church.
“Over 18 years I’ve known Rev. Smith. He left a profound impression on my life. He was already in the trenches of transforming the Hill District and being an advocate against injustices. He was fiery and will be missed in that capacity,” said Rev. Grayson. He said the running joke is that with the retirement of Rev. Smith, Rev. Monroe and Rev. Winsett, he and Rev. Victor Grigsby, of Central Baptist Church will now be the senior pastors of the “Hill.” “They were truly advocates for justice, not only on Sunday, but Monday through Saturday,” he said.
As for the role of the Black church, Rev. Smith said, “The church is going through a transition and I don’t believe people understand the real purpose of the church. The church is not necessarily here to serve the individual; it’s here to help facilitate the service to individuals. It’s not for me, it’s for me to use to help others.
“More Black people ought to be involved in the struggle and in the type of church activity that will transform our community. We don’t need someone to come in and tell us what to do or how to correct the problem. We have the facilities, if we begin to use them to help teach mothers how to be mothers and men to be men, it would make a difference. We don’t need charter or private schools to teach our children, if we give them the basics in our own institutions then they’ll be able to translate them and take that when they go in the broader community. The foundation begins at home and for us the home and the church are the only two institutions Blacks own. We’re destroying ourselves because we’re abandoning our institutions.”
When it comes to his legacy Rev. Smith said, he hopes to be remembered for being “just another one standing on the shoulders of others gone before and helping to (improve) the struggle. A number of people are still in the process of trying to bring about change and I would like to be remembered as their friend and co-worker in the (fight) for justice and liberation.”
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