by Marissa Kam
“What’s the word?” Jacob Smith asks as he greets elderly New Yorkers entering St. George’s Chapel on a Sunday morning. Smith doles out handshakes with a smile, intermittently takings sips of coffee. The week’s news are exchanged. Before members of the congregation enter the chapel Smith adds, “Well, welcome! We’re happy to have you!”
When Sunday service begin, the 34-year old reverend’s warm presence does not leave. He speaks with composed conviction and minimal hand gestures. Smith’s sermons are thoughtful and structured, reflecting on the promises of God, but are made casual with humorous anecdotes. He gets several laughs from the congregation as he retells the story of a man who had the misfortune of getting caught in closing subway doors. Smith reenacts the scene, miming the door closure by pressing the sides of his two hands against his face. “Oh, Jesus!” he shouts and laughs. Smith ends the story with a comment another subway rider said to the man, “Hey man, don’t blame Jesus!”
Born in Yuma, Arizona, Smith found himself in the position of the subway passenger cursing God. While studying University of Arizona, Smith says he experienced a “crisis of faith,” which he describes as feeling of confusion and questioning of his existence. He blamed God for his hardships. Smith took matters into his own hands, believing he could solve all his problems without God. This idea of doubt he had with his faith and purpose resulted in dramatic changes in his lifestyle. He experienced drastic shifts from extreme partying to extreme religion in hopes of finding solution in an in between phase. “I just could not hold myself together,” he says, adding, “I was kind of a douchebag.”
Sitting in his Gramercy office, Smith sways in his leather chair while he discusses the greatest conflicts people encounter in their lives. “Most people,” Reverend Smith says, “spend their lives trying to solve their own problems.” Smith reassures his audience that there is a greater power at work, that even in great despondency God has a plan for you. From this broad idea, Smith siphons three points. Three points, he says, makes his sermons accessible to all members of the congregation, while flushing out all the truths of the Gospel. He presents a message of comfort–as opposed to a list of instructions on how to solve your problems–that God is always present in people’s lives. “I could say something spiritual, like it represents the Holy Trinity. But in reality most people,” he jokes, “don’t have bladders to last that long.”
In a recent sermon, Smith articulates problems of modern Christianity. He explains how people warp their own meanings of the Bible to benefit their personal goals. “For some,” he explains in his sermon, “the bible is nothing more than my survival book to Armageddon. Or, the bible is my road map to becoming incredibly rich. And for others, it’s my book for telling me who I should vote for.” “I’m not into the whole self-help gambit,” he says addressing the common mistake people assume that church is supposed to be like “those 10-steps-to-a-better-you types.”
His passion for theology and pop culture and human justice meld into one. “I would consider my sermons,” he says, “to be what is called Biblical with a pop culture lean on them.” Smith has enjoyed discussing the movie Chocolat in his Easter Sunday sermon, and addressing serious issues of the South African apartheid as results of religious homogeneity.
New York, he says, is the perfect place where of God and society. When he was called to serve St. George’s/Calvary Church in 2006, Smith had reservations. “New York is so ahead of the curb in every aspect, and I though it’d be too tiring. And I was right.” Besides giving three services every Sunday, Smith keeps also keep busy with his family: his wife Melina, and two young children. Smith and Melina met at University of Arizona, and were married in 2001.
Smiths leads various community programs that reinforce his passion for discussing theology and pop culture. “It’s important that everyone knows Jesus at church,” he says. “But’s there’s been a shift to importance in everyone getting to know each other through programs.” A young adult group meets Tuesday evenings at Calvary Church’s Anderson Hall. An intimate group of five, or so, twenty year-olds gather for an hour of singing, gospel readings, and prayer circles. Joined by Dusty Brown, the Ministries Associate, Smith encourages all questions about the Bible.
In his spare time, Smith enjoys watching horror and exorcism movies. It’s hard to believe, coming from a man who wears a neckband, a simple long sleeve button down shirt, tucked into pressed black slacks. He says he once discussed an exorcism movie in a dialogue group, and it completely blind sided the participants. “They looked at me like I was possessed,” he says. But of course, his choice has a religious undercurrent. “It’s the only genre of film where Christian imagery is present,” he says. “And, good always wins.”
Smith’s main goal is to remain genuine when he preaches. “Sometimes,” he says, “preparing sermons is a psychological battle.” It is important to Smith to remain true to his intentions. The most difficult sermons, he says, are the ones he pushes an idea he does not truly like. So many times, he says, reverends will try to talk about something they’re obviously not interested in. And it shows; he can usually spot out the phonies. “One priest talking was about how he liked some rock band. And all I could think was, ‘You’re lying!’”
Resting atop his pinnacle of knowledge is his personal philosophy, which reminds us to remain true to ourselves: “God already acknowledges you problems. Remember that He does not operate through the extraordinary, but ordinary. Just rest in who you already are.”