The family tradition

Fred Jeff Smith steps into the pulpit of his father, grandfather

The Rev. Fred Jeff Smith takes seriously the legacy he continues by becoming the third Smith to lead Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church.

“Some people might say that’s three too many,” Smith joked with a booming laugh.

His grandfather, the late Rev. Dudley T. Smith, served two decades as the third pastor of the Baton Rouge church, which was founded in 1872. His father, the late Rev. Charles T. Smith, one of Louisiana’s most prominent Missionary Baptist preachers, suffered a heart condition and two strokes late in life and retired, after 50 years at Shiloh, in 2012.

At age 80, Charles Smith, according to his obituary, “was called from labor to reward” on Sept. 11, 2012.

As Fred Jeff Smith entered the Shiloh sanctuary recently and stood on the platform, he reminisced about growing up there, leaving for three decades to preach at other churches and now returning to the church where he grew up — where he taught Sunday school, went to vacation Bible school, sang in the choir and served in the youth department.

“I pray to God, it is my expectation, that this is my last stop before heaven,” Smith, 51, said.

He served for 21 years at the 800-member Greater Mount Carmel Baptist Church of Scotlandville. Feb. 24 was his last Sunday there.

Smith didn’t even take a week off, preaching at the 3,500-member Shiloh last Sunday, a week before his formal installation. The installation service is scheduled for 3 p.m. Sunday.

“I loved my father very much, and I loved being recognized as being Charles Smith’s son,” Fred Jeff Smith said. “To me, there was no pressure, there was just pride.

“If I was misbehaving, I might hear, ‘Your mom and your dad will be ashamed of you for what you are doing right now,’” Smith said with a wry smile. “There was no hiding.

“I was proud to be my father’s son — and my mother’s son,” he added.

His mother, the late Wistonia McKesson Smith, died in 1986, the same year Fred Jeff Smith graduated from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary with a master of divinity degree in the division of pastoral studies.

At Baton Rouge Magnet High School, where he graduated in 1979, he threw the shot put, discus and javelin on the track team and ran on the cross country team his junior and senior year.

“I was good at none of them,” he said with another hearty laugh.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from LSU in 1983, but always knew he was going to be a preacher. At the age of 19, he made his calling public before attending seminary.

“I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior at the age of 6,” he said.

He was baptized by his father, in the old sanctuary, where men had to move the pulpit, roll back the carpet and remove floorboards to reveal the baptistery.

“Also around the age of 6, I had an experience with the Lord,” Smith said. “I was asleep and I woke up and I saw a vision of the Lord standing before me and he called me into the gospel ministry.

“It was a clear and relevant experience that I’ve carried with me to this day,” he said. “Whenever I share it some people roll their eyes, and that’s understandable, and some people are very compelled by it, but, compelled — repelled — it’s what happened.”

Smith said he wrestled with it, “not because I had any reluctance to the ministry, but because I wanted to be very sure that I didn’t make this choice based upon family legacy, because ever since I was a child I’ve had people say, ‘You’re going to preach just like your dad or your granddad.’”

His elderly grandmother and mother and father accepted his calling with understanding and prayer.

“The most wonderful thing about it was that he didn’t dismiss it; he didn’t count it as me being youthful and imaginative and creative,” Smith said. “He just wanted me to be certain about it.”

Fred Jeff Smith wrote his first sermon at the age of 8.

“It was about Moses and crossing the Red Sea,” he said.

Smith still writes out all his sermons, a practice his father drilled into him — and dozens of other young preachers Charles Smith mentored.

“He believed in writing,” Smith said. “If he didn’t see clear flow of thought he would say, ‘This is murky. You need to be able to communicate the Gospel in a relevant and practical way so people can respond to it and receive it and take something away with it.’”

Smith also follows his father’s methodology of preaching a three-point sermon. “I believe that was good because you went away remembering three relevant thoughts and you knew what the thoughts were.”

He reads his Bible often and writes a daily email devotional.

“I’m fond of Jeremiah because Jeremiah was often misunderstood and unappreciated yet he continued to work and he didn’t cave to the pressure,” Smith said. “He preached for 40 years with no one wanting to hear what he was saying. I admire that tenacity.”

He said he believes the Bible is the truth but not necessarily “inerrant” as some, perhaps more fundamentalist, pastors would define inerrancy.

“I don’t believe in biblical inerrancy the way people commonly mean it as if to say it is a history book or science book — it’s not,” Smith explained.

“Do I believe the world was created in six, 24-hour periods? No. Do I believe the world was created in various stages? Yes, and that those stages can correspond to the six days that are listed in Genesis,” Smith said. “So, I believe in inerrancy from the standpoint of using the Bible as a statement of spiritual faith and a statement of God revealing himself to man in this way.”

His goals, he said, are to improve church attendance and to oppose the “skepticism” of the mass culture through his messages and technology.

The church’s website is slated to be upgraded, and videos, podcasts and tweets are planned.

“According to statistics I’ve read, church attendance is down to 38 percent which means that 62 percent of this country has chosen not to participate in a church,” he said. “I think those are troubling numbers and something we need to respond to.

“We have to project a clear, coherent, relevant, practical, message to people about their relationship and their responsibilities to God — their stewardship to God — and how that stewardship should be played out in how we treat one another,” Smith said. “I try to preach messages that don’t just tell stories about Scripture but relate those stories to what’s going on in Baton Rouge, in the South, in the United States and international affairs when they come into play.”

His message, he said, and the message of the African-American church, is a message of hope.

“The message is still ‘God will make a way,’ which is a very different message than, ‘be nice, do nice, treat people fairly, and God will bless you,’” he said.

He is married to Demetria LeVel Jones-Smith, and father of two sons from a previous marriage, Charles Turnbull Smith II, 18; and Myles Gabriel Smith, 15.

Smith has an older brother, Eric Charles Smith, who lives in Denver, and his sister, Sonceree Smith Clark, of Baton Rouge, is two years younger.

“I believe in service to the community as a part of my Christian stewardship, and I got that model from my father,” Smith said.

He is involved in Together Baton Rouge, Mid-City Community Fellowship, the Working Interfaith Network and the Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge.

“Shiloh Missionary Baptist is a pillar in this community and a vital witness of how to reach beyond the church walls to care for those in need — no matter the color of skin, gender, or age,” said the Rev. Robin McCullough-Bade, executive director of the Interfaith Federation. “When I asked Rev. (Charles) Smith how he learned to reach out a hand and bring a diverse community together, he smiled and said, ‘Quite simply, that’s the way I was raised. And that’s how I raised my children.’

“Rev. Fred Jeff Smith will continue on that tradition of compassion and love, but will add his own unique gifts and insights,” McCullough-Bade said.

Since Fred Jeff Smith returned to Baton Rouge, after serving at First Free Mission Baptist of New Orleans from 1986 to 1992, he’s served on numerous boards and committees, including the Rotary Club, Committee for Ethnic Diversity at LSU, Ethics Review Board at Southern University, Pennington’s Ethics Review Board, General Health System’s Ethics Review Board, Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank board, a neighborhood committee of United Way and another neighborhood committee for Baton Rouge Area Foundation, and is on Habitat for Humanity’s board.

He is also a member and past president of the Fourth District Congress of Christian Education, and a member of the Fourth District Missionary Baptist Association; the Louisiana Baptist State Convention; the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.; and will be named to its board of directors later this spring, he said.

From January 2012 when Charles Smith announced his intention to retire until Fred Jeff Smith was elected a few weeks ago, the Rev. Clee Lowe, an associate pastor at Shiloh since 2007, served as interim pastor.

“Charles T. Smith was a visionary leader and a theologian, and after serving Shiloh for 50 years, the mantle has been transferred and given to his son who will make his own path,” said Lowe, who will now serve as interim pastor for Greater Mount Carmel.

The Rev. Jesse Bilberry Jr., president of the Fourth District and longtime pastor of Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church, called Fred Jeff Smith “the sharpest candidate” of about 50 applicants and noted how the late Charles Smith was hoping to be replaced by Fred Jeff Smith but didn’t live long enough to see it happen.

“He got his wish after all,” Bilberry said. “All the people around the state are real excited he got it.”

Mike Jefferson is chairman of the deacon ministry and the pastor search committee.

“One of the commitments that Rev. Fred Jeff Smith has made is that we’re going to have a more efficient service. To most of us, that means a shorter service,” Jefferson said, quoting the Rev. C.C. McLain, who quipped, “Good sermons don’t have to be everlasting to be eternal.”

Fred Jeff Smith sees his role as serving the Lord and the congregation “to the best of my ability and to provide leadership that will help us to fulfill the Gospel mandate of Christ to preach, teach and heal in every way that we can.”