After 44 years, a vow fulfilled

Minister: The Rev. Errol G. Smith is retiring from his Baltimore church with the sure knowledge that he kept his word to God.

June 21, 1999|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

It's not an easy church. It needs a huge restoration. It struggles with a dwindling congregation. And Lovely Lane United Methodist is a cherished historical and architectural landmark, the mother church of American Methodism.

The Rev. Errol G. Smith took on the task with energy, compassion and wit. He raised $3 million, paid off debt and opened the church to the community.

Yesterday, he delivered his last sermon, blending sadness and jokes as he closed 44 years as a minister, eight at Lovely Lane in Baltimore.

"God called me, and I found God terribly hard to ignore," Smith told church members and former colleagues who came from around Maryland to honor him. "I made God a promise I would see it to the end."

Smith, 62, a soft-spoken man known for fund-raising prowess and preaching skill, came to Lovely Lane in 1991 with a charge to rekindle the restoration effort. An earlier campaign had raised $3 million, which was used to clean and stabilize the exterior and the tower, but the church needed $3 million to $4 million more for the roof and the interior.

Lovely Lane is known as the mother church because 60 American Methodist preachers convened in a meetinghouse of the Lovely Lane Society on Dec. 24, 1784, and agreed to form a united independent church. Lovely Lane's pastor, the Rev. Francis Asbury, was elected the first Methodist bishop.

The building on St. Paul Street, a Romanesque structure designed by architect Stanford White, was completed in 1887 under the leadership of the Rev. John Franklin Goucher, who founded the college later called Goucher College.

Until the 1950s, the church was packed to its 800-seat capacity. Then its membership began to drop as parishioners moved to the suburbs. Nowadays, 40 to 50 people attend on a typical Sunday.

For Smith and his wife, Joy, who came from the 1,500-member suburban Faith United Methodist Church in Rockville, the move to Lovely Lane meant radical change. Smith was suddenly preaching to congregations smaller than those he preached to as a student. But his sermons were as inspiring as ever, colleagues and members said.

"Last Ash Wednesday, there were 10 people here," said Anne Seeger, who sends out the church newsletter. "And he preached as if there were 1,000 -- a wonderful sermon."

The Rev. McCarl Roberts, retired director of the Maryland Bible Society, said Smith is one of the best preachers in the country, one who researches his subject thoroughly and employs the classical tradition of writing sermons and memorizing them. "He's a writer, basically," Roberts said.

Facing the church's daunting financial needs, Smith took a fund-raising class, hired a consultant, tapped foundations for grants and garnered support from Methodist churches around the country.

During his eight years, the church tripled its operating endowment from $400,000 to $1.3 million and paid off $400,000 in debt. It raised more than $300,000 in grants to renovate the gym so it can be used by community residents, Smith said. The church has also started a summer camp and raised money for uniforms and books for area schoolchildren.

The pastorship now goes to the Rev. Nancy Nedwell of Towson United Methodist Church.

Smith got his calling as a youngster in Carmichaels, Pa. When he was 12, a young pastor Bill Young, who had survived the Battle of the Bulge during World War II and had made a foxhole pledge to join the ministry, arrived at his church, That year, Smith's father, a school principal, died of a heart attack.

Young spent lots of time with the congregation's children; several would meet Sunday evenings to talk about life and death. In high school, Smith went to a summer retreat in Jumonville, Pa., where a beautiful chapel with deep-blue stained-glass windows sat atop a mountain with a large, illuminated cross. There were bonfires, songs and inspirational speakers. It was then he realized he would spend his life serving God.

Smith started preaching right out of high school and was assigned to four churches as he attended Waynesburg (Pa.) College, supporting his mother and siblings on a small salary and the kindness of church members, who brought him eggs and chickens.

In 1959, he started training at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington and in 1962 became pastor of Calvary United Methodist Church in Carroll County, where he tripled stewardship giving.

Over the next 27 years, he served congregations throughout the Baltimore-Washington area, including Arlington in Pimlico, and Mount Zion in Howard County before he moved to Rockville.

In an interview, Smith recalled one of his most memorable times at Lovely Lane -- his last confirmation class, a boy and a girl. For months, they came to his house and sat on pillows on the floor talking about God and prayer, and such teen-age challenges as promiscuity. Smith was taken with their candor.

"I had more fun; it was the most delightful and rewarding experience I can think of," he said.

One of the teens, Kevin White, had lost his father to a heart attack when Kevin was 12, just as Smith had. Over the years, Kevin said yesterday, Smith has always been there for him. "He treated me with such kindness."

Yesterday, in closing his sermon, Smith told of a Tanzanian runner who finished last in the 1968 Olympics. Asked why he kept running without a chance of winning, he said: "My country did not send me 7,000 miles to start a race. They sent me 7,000 miles to finish the race."

And with that, Smith finished his race.

Afterward, colleagues, congregants, friends and family -- Joy and their three children, Scott, Eric and Jennifer -- honored him in speeches, jokes and song.

Jennifer -- in a spectacular soprano voice -- sang "On My Own." By the end of the song -- "I love him. I love him. I love him. But only on my own" -- Smith took off his glasses and wiped his eyes.

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