On Saturday, Dr Garnett Roper, president of Jamaica Theological Seminary (JTS), hosted a function to honour the Reverend Ashley Smith, who was publicly conferred with the Order of Jamaica on October 21. The tribute took the form of the launch of the book, A Kairos Moment for Caribbean Theology, which was the result of a collection of lectures given three years ago to mark Smith's 55th anniversary as a minister of religion.
Smith was hailed as a revolutionary Presbyterian minister. During the time he was being trained for the full-time pastoral ministry, the churches in the Corporate Area and the main towns were all pastored by Scottish missionaries. It was believed that persons like him were not competent to pastor those urban churches. Furthermore, his colleagues were fearful that the inflow of funds from overseas would dry up if the missionaries were to stop coming to Jamaica. Additionally, local pastors were not expected to study to the level of getting theological degrees. Smith smashed the glass ceiling and became pastor of St John's United located in Hannah Town, and later St Paul's United on Lockett Avenue, Kingston - churches once reserved for Scottish missionaries. Also, he headed the United Theological College of the West Indies (UTCWI); moderated his denomination and got degrees from highly respected universities. He was also religious adviser to former Prime Minister Michael Manley.
Smith became one of the leading theologians of this era and his seminal works include Real Roots and Potted Plants and Emerging from Innocence, which addressed the issue of theological emancipation. He was always seeking after truth, which, in the understanding of his friend, Dr Burchell Taylor, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, was critical, analytical and practical.
Smith had some practical gems. On the night of the function, he related how his eight-year-old grandson claimed that persons from the lower classes say 'wata' while persons from the upper classes say 'water'. Smith was also one who insisted that we should not say 'the poor' but 'persons who are poor.' He believed that we ought to affirm the humanity of persons rather than defining them based on their financial status, sexual orientation or creed. Therefore, it would not be 'gay', but rather persons who are in a homosexual relationship or persons who practise homosexuality. A person is more that what he says or does sexually. Everybody is somebody, first and foremost.
Belief in equality
An implication of the inherent worth of everyone is his belief in equality of all. Smith instilled in his students that their writings could stand up against the best in the world. At UTCWI, he taught Church and Development and was the only lecturer who encouraged us to publish our essays. Dr Canute Thompson and I were given the responsibility to be the editors of that publication in 1985. My essay in that publication was 'Gambling with Casinos". Smith believed that our sermons ought to be worthy of publication. Smith was always encouraging others to do further studies, including working towards a PhD.
When I was coordinator of The Gleaner's Religion Page, I invited Smith to be a contributor and he was a prolific writer. We also co-operated as writers of The Gleaner's Religion Year in Review and he was an excellent commentator.
Smith and I entered UTCWI the same year, 1981; he as a lecturer and I as a student. It was expected that as 'freshers' we would be 'orientated' by senior students. However, we as first-year students were shocked when a senior student 'orientated' Smith, the lecturer, during lunchtime, in the cafeteria. He took it in stride and did not complain. However, suffice to say, no future lecturer was subjected to such 'orientation'.
A gentle giant, Rev'd The Honourable Ashley Smith, theologian, scholar, pastor and nation builder, deserves the honour bestowed upon him by JTS and the nation.
Rev Devon Dick is pastor of the Boulevard Baptist Church in St Andrew. He is author of 'The Cross and the Machete', and 'Rebellion to Riot'. Send feedback to columns@ gleanerjm.com.