Centenary United Methodist Church and its pastor, Dr. Deborah Smith, are building on its 150-year history in Soulsville USA by stepping out in the community.
Memories of listening to music at Stax Records studio and becoming friends with members of the Bar-Kays before their untimely death along with Otis Redding when their plane went down over Wisconsin are real for Dr. Deborah Smith.
Also real for Smith is attending LeMoyne-Owen College on scholarship, walking the streets of a vibrant neighborhood with her future husband and growing up in an apartment at 892 E. McLemore Ave., just down from Stax.
While a student at LeMoyne-Owen, Smith met Booker T Jones’ wife, and she fondly recalls attending jam sessions at their home.
Yes, those are fond memories of youth for Smith. But today, after a journey that took her to New Orleans for 32 years where she and her husband, Eddie Smith Jr., raised three children, she is back in Soulsville USA where she is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church, which celebrated its 150th year in 2015.
Smith has served at Centenary United Methodist Church as senior pastor since June 2011. And when she arrived at the church at 584 E. McLemore Ave. she didn’t like what had become of her old neighborhood.
“When I looked at McLemore it broke my heart,” she said. “It wasn’t like that when I grew up. When I saw the poverty and people walking with no purpose I started doing research on the area and I told the church we have to get out and do more in the neighborhood. The gospel is outside, not in the church.”
Smith began to ask the congregation to get out in the neighborhood and introduce themselves. Over the past five years, Centenary has had a renewed focus on the surrounding community. It started with a trunk or treat event that took place on what turned out to be an unseasonably cold fall day. Children woefully underdressed for the cold weather attended and church members took notice.
Realizing the need, the die was cast. Now when events are held there is always hot food available. When voter registration drives were held it came with grocery donations.
Trunk or treat evolved into a fall festival. A separate back-to-school health fair was established, and partnerships with organizations such as Southern College of Optometry meant eye exams for children. Centenary also houses the community clothes closet in conjunction with other Soulsville USA churches.
Smith’s professional background is in education, teaching every grade on the secondary level at one point, working as a professor at Southern University and even creating curriculum for that school’s Master of Arts in Teaching program, which she also served as director.
But there was always a feeling of a higher calling.
“Somewhere as I was writing the curriculum I knew I had to answer my call to ministry,” she said. “I knew I was called to do something for the Lord and didn’t know what. I was cautious because I didn’t see women in the pulpit or see many women around the church.”
Smith started teaching Sunday school classes while a student at LeMoyne-Owen. Her service continued after moving to New Orleans working with the church youth group and singing in the choir. But she said she always felt that wasn’t enough.
“So I went to a couple of male pastors to explore what I felt this calling was,” Smith said. “I don’t believe they took me seriously. They didn’t refer me or direct me to the next step. I felt here are these men called by God. If they didn’t see anything maybe I was misreading God.”
Or, maybe she wasn’t. Smith’s husband became ill and developed pneumonia in both lungs. An infection in his leg began developing sepsis and the prognosis of amputation was real. Smith said she cried out to God, asking Him to spare her husband.
“God spoke to me, ‘I’ll give you the desires of your heart if you’ll preach my word,’” Smith recalled. “The Lord told me to let my husband know this was my commitment. The next day the surgeon came in prepared to amputate and he looked at it and said, ‘Wow, all the infection has dissipated.’”
Smith told her husband of her new commitment once he woke. He immediately expressed support and Smith began commuting to Dallas to attend Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology. It was late summer of 2005 and Smith was away starting the semester.
She returned home for the weekend, only to realize the city was in the crosshairs of Hurricane Katrina. Eddie Smith was home recovering. The home health care professional was in a hurry to evacuate the city, but she stayed long enough to quickly teach Smith how to insert his PICC line to administer medicine.
The Smiths left that Saturday, evacuating to their daughter’s home in Houston, a drive that should’ve taken about five hours but lasted 15. Katrina hit the next Monday, and the Smiths home was under water.
Dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was a good enough reason to take a break from school. It’s what Smith had in mind, but the family had a meeting without her and were determined to see her continue the divinity degree. Smith already had the Southwest Airlines tickets, and they accommodated her request to reroute the New Orleans-Dallas flights to Houston-Dallas flights.
“I remember the first time I stepped into theology class I had been gone two weeks and they gave a gasp and started clapping,” Smith said. “The professor said, ‘Excuse me,’ and they all said Deborah is home.”
Their New Orleans home was under 12 feet of water. Eddie Smith’s two businesses were lost. And after a journey from New Orleans via Houston, Albuquerque and Indianapolis, the Smiths found their way to Memphis.
Smith was assigned to Germantown United Methodist Church in 2008 as associate pastor in charge of outreach and missions. She served there three years before coming home to Soulsville USA. She was the first African-American clergy assigned to Germantown and the first female pastor at Centenary when she was assigned there in 2011.
“I always say I came full circle,” Smith said. “I lived down the street. Sometimes it leaves me in awe. God directed my path and brought me back and reminded me of my heritage.”
Part of Smith’s neighborhood heritage is LeMoyne-Owen College, an institution she is grateful for giving her an opportunity to further her education. Smith was in the top 10 percent of her class at Hamilton High School, but there were no scholarships that came her way.
“God has always given me the spirit of no fear so I went into the counselor and said is it possible for me to get a scholarship,” Smith said. “I’ll never forget this. She dropped her pen, looked up to me and said, ‘I didn’t think you wanted to go to school.’ I was stunned. I said, ‘Yes ma’am, I do.’ She said she’d be back in touch.”
But what that counselor returned with was a list of schools that had lost their accreditation. Smith’s mother told her to put her faith in God. And it just so happened Smith had taken the ACT, earning a strong enough score to draw LeMoyne-Owen’s attention. The school offered Smith a scholarship, and she became the first member of her family to attend college.
Smith would go on to earn a master’s degree at the University of New Orleans and a doctorate at LSU. She credits LeMoyne-Owen with laying the groundwork for her future academic endeavors, particularly at a time when few African-Americans attended those two schools.