Tributes to Dr. Joseph M. Smith
Dear family and friends of our colleague and mentor Dr. Joseph Martin Smith:
He would be the first to say that “nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” The lives of Joseph and Winnifred Watson Smith were their true eulogy. I had the privilege of working with Joe Smith in the Division of World Mission of the United Christian Missionary Society which became the Division of Overseas Ministries, where he served as East Asia Secretary for twelve years. No one brought more prestige to the leadership of our church in ecumenical circles than he. In the East Asia Committee of the National Council of Churches, he was a voice of experience and wisdom in interdenominational cooperation with the churches of China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. Thanks to him, our church held respect and love for the Chinese people through thirty years of silence and political alienation. He did not let anti-Communism diminish hope and Christian friendship during those difficult years. We see how right he was today. His doctoral thesis at Union Theological Seminary in 1961 was called A Strategy of World Mission and represented the most advanced theology and practice of intercultural relations among the churches and nations of the world. He made mission cooperation between churches, each having something to contribute to the other. He was a man of Christ from Appalachia, a man of God’s peace, an example and inspiration for us all.
William Nottingham, President Emeritus, Division of Overseas Ministries
The passing of your father is a great loss to us all. Joe Smith was my friend, hero, inspiration, mentor. He directed me into a life of ministry in the Chinese world, using Chinese languages. His best advice to me, given in 1973, was that if I was serious about working on China the most important thing was to learn the language and learn it well. Under his leadership the DOM paid for my Chinese language studies at Cornell and Stanford Centre in Taipei, and I have never looked back.
Joe’s ideals have been a guiding star of my life. One of those ideals was commitment to the rural poor, whom he served in China. This was reflected in his appreciation for the Chinese revolution which (in those days) we believed had brought new hope to the hundreds of millions of China’s rural people.
Through his influence I did a study of “Rural Reconstruction in China” in the 1930’s when I was working at the Canada China programme of the Canadian Council of Churches in 1978. After I began working in rural community development in Taiwan after 1982 I went to study co-operatives and community development in the Coady Institute Antigonish Nova Scotia. What a surprise when in 1993 Joe sent me a letter (complete with envelope) that Fr. Jimmy Tompkins had sent to him in 1935 when he was serving rural poor in West Virginia in the 1940’s.
I regret that I was never able to visit Joe in his final years in Virginia, but cherish the vivid memories of times spent with him (and Wyn) as a student at Christian Theological Seminary, working at 222 South Downey, at Hand Lake, and in later years at Robin Run.
In paradisum deducant te angeli
In tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres
et perducant te in civitatum sanctum
Reverend Michael Stainton
York Centre for Asian Research
Indeed we did know Win, Joe, Fred, and Doug Smith. While Joe was back in China, Win served as “House Mother” to Disciple students at Yale Divinity School. We were housed in what had been a Winchester mansion renamed Mission House and were just a couple blocks from the school. Win and the boys were with us for a year of our two year sojourn at YDS. Doug at two years old was a holy terror, Fred a normal school age sweetie. The three of them worked their way into our hearts.
Many years later husband Bruce was minister for Doug’s marriage here in Arizona. The last few years I had reconnected with Joe via email. Missing Win and Joe is tough, but their inspiration lives on. I cry with one eye and smile with the other….
was always “Uncle Joe” to me.
In 1947, my parents
Hubert and Harriet Reynolds – with their three small children Virginia (age 5),
Jane (age 3), and me (age 2) – were assigned by UCMS (now DOM) to Wuhu, China.
In Wuhu, my parents worked alongside Joe and Win Smith, with their two young
boys Frederick and Doug. We were “family.” In the manner of overseas
missionaries, Joe became “Uncle Joe” and Win became “Aunt Win” to us children.
Win Smith returned to
the U.S. in 1948 with Fred and Doug, and Joe left in 1949. My family stayed in
Wuhu until 1951. After a year in the U.S., my parents went to the Philippines
in 1952 as Disciples missionaries. Every once in awhile, growing up in the
Philippines, the name Joe Smith would come up, perhaps because Joe like my
father had a special affection for China, and both were active in the Disciples
Peace Fellowship and related efforts to promote world peace. Also, my parents
were working on their M.A.s and Ph.D.s in Cultural Anthropology (Ph.D.s, 1964),
around the topics of Chinese acculturation to Philippine life – a topic that
interested Uncle Joe.
From 1964 to 1976,
Uncle Joe was my parents’ boss, in his capacity as Director of the Department
of East Asia and in charge of Disciples’ work in the Philippines under the UCCP
(United Church of Christ in the Philippines). My mother’s weekly letters would
sometimes bring news of Joe’s visits and activities.
In 1965, I started
graduate studies in modern Chinese history at Columbia University in New York
City (Ph.D. 1976). Every once in awhile, Uncle Joe would write that he was
coming to town. He knew the Columbia neighborhood since he had received his
doctorate in 1961 from nearby Union Theological Seminary (where former Disciples
missionary to China, Dr. M. Searle Bates, served on the faculty). Uncle Joe’s
visits were appropriate not just because of our family connections, but because
the Disciples Church had an education fund for missionary kids like me, that
paid $1,000 a year (or was it $1,000 per semester?) toward tuition. This made a
huge difference for a grad student with only survival money.
Fast forward to 1980.
In 1980, in a very tight job market, I was fortunate to find a position
teaching Chinese and Japanese History at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
Soon after arriving, I attended a meeting of USCPFA (US-China Peoples
Friendship Association – Atlanta chapter), and learned that a former China
missionary – Dr. Joseph Smith – was a member! Wow. He and Win had built a
retirement home (much of the work done by hand by Uncle Joe) in the north
Georgia mountains. In 1980, Chinese scholars from the Peoples Republic of China
were just starting to come to the U.S. for study, particularly to Georgia Tech
in Atlanta. USCPFA befriended many of these early Chinese scholars. Uncle Joe
in either 1980 or 1981 asked my family – my wife Carol, and children Sara and
Emily – to join them for Thanksgiving and to bring one or two China scholars
with us. This began our family tradition of spending Thanksgiving in the north
Georgia mountains with Joe and Win. What a delight that was, and a high point
of each November, treasured by our whole family.
Joe and Win left the
Atlanta area for Indianapolis in the late 1980s, after which we maintained
contact by Christmas greetings and two visits to their home at Robin Run
Village. My wife Carol (Ph.D., Columbia University, ’86) joined the State Department
as a diplomat in 1986, and thereafter had several postings to Beijing. I got to
know China well, and traveled extensively. (One thing this mish kid knows how
to do is hard travel, learned in the footsteps of the Master of Hard Travel,
Hubert Reynolds.) In 1979, I made a trip with my father to Wuhu, and passed
through there by bus on later occasions, without stopping. In 1997 or ‘98, Joe
contacted me and said, “I’d really like to go back to China and do two things:
first, visit villages outside of Wuhu that I used to frequent – and see if I
can find any old friends (Uncle Joe sent me old photos, and I was hooked); and,
second, travel to Wuwei in rural Anhui province where I was due to serve as a
rural missionary, but I never made it because of the Chinese revolution.” I was
What a trip that was.
Fred came with his dad, and my sister Jane completed our foursome. For Uncle
Joe and me, this was a trip of a lifetime. (Jane and Fred were not so thrilled.
It didn’t help that during our visit, on May 7, U.S. warplanes bombed the
Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing several diplomats and reporters. Chinese
were furious. They yelled anti-American slogans at us, and posted street
banners that called Americans Nazis. I speak Chinese easily, conversed with our
critics, held my tongue, and no one assaulted us.)
After this great
trip, Uncle Joe and I had only sporadic contact. Fast forward again.
December 22, 2010:
that evening, my daughter Sara, husband Ron, daughter Grace, and son Logan (all
four visiting me in Atlanta from Sara’s job in Japan), were together in a car
driving up to Carol’s place in Springfield, VA, for Christmas. Our route took
us up I-81 outside Blacksburg, VA. Uncle Joe usually sent out Christmas
letters, and I had his letter from December 2008 with his address on it. “Do
you suppose,” I wondered. . . . I went online, and found a phone number for his
residence. Yes, he lived there – and the receptionist gushed about how
wonderful he was. During holidays, she said, he usually goes to his daughter’s
place. I would need to talk to the daughter. No, they couldn’t release her phone
number. I was driving, so Sara called her mom, telling Carol the name Barbara
Smith of the Virginia Tech Women’s Studies Program. Carol called back in ten
minutes with Barbara’s number. Yes, Barbara told Sara – her dad was with her. They
were leaving on a short trip the next day. It was already after 9:00 p.m.,
Springfield was four hours away, so a visit that night was out of the question
“How about if we call
back after Christmas, when your family gets back from your trip?”
So, on December 27,
Carol, Sara, Emily, and I – the gang of four from Thanksgiving years before –
hopped into two cars (I had to get back to Atlanta), put Uncle Joe’s address
into our GPS, and off we went (letting Barbara know we were on our way. Barbara
then called her dad to expect us.)
We got to Uncle Joe’s
comfortable Showalter Drive apartment building after lunch. We went up to his apartment
#307. The door was unlocked, so we walked in. And there he was!! In his
bedroom, on the bed – expecting us with his big smile and bright eyes. He said
he would be right out and we should have a seat. He eased himself out of bed,
put on his slacks, and came out with the help of a cane. He was steady on his
feet, he sat in his favorite chair, and we started talking “shop.” Sara and Emily
were full of questions about China, the Philippines, Thanksgiving, his family
photos on the wall, several paintings from China and California. Etcetera,
When we said our
goodbyes nearly two hours later, we were sure Uncle Joe would live to be a
hundred. There was no hint that he might die just two weeks later.
Uncle Joe lived a
full life, one of Christian love, Buddhist compassion, and social activism, and
that’s what counts.
What a privilege now
to celebrate the memory of this good man, his work, and his family.
In loving remembrance,
Doug (and Carol,
Sara, and Emily)
Department of History
(History of China and Japan)
Atlanta, GA 30303