Clergy Corner, Jan. 18, 2019

Clergy Corner, Jan. 18, 2019

When St. Joseph's Prince of Peace Lutheran Church needed a new pastor after Seth Jersild's departure last summer, the congregation didn't have to look far for a fill-in.

"I couldn't say no to my own church," says THE REV. DONNA SMITH, a Prince of Peace member and, since July 2, its interim pastor. "They are actively pursuing a new pastor. I am holding the fort down until that new person comes."

A convert to Christianity as a young teenager, Smith, 64, has worked as a missionary in Japan, survived breast cancer and spent the last 31 years alongside husband Lawrence, a former judge.

The for-now head of a church with 195 active parishioners sat down for a wide-ranging chat Thursday with staff writer Tim Mitchell.

Many around here still know you from your nearly 10 years as pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran in Champaign. What do you remember most about that time?

I felt like I just got the keys to the Cadillac. Good Shepherd is the Cadillac of churches. One of the most fun times that we had was in 2005 when the Illini basketball team went to the NCAA championship game. Coach Bruce Weber was a member of our church, and he and his wife are still friends with us.

Easter Sunday 2005 was the day after the Illini's famous comeback against Arizona. On Easter morning, coach Weber was in church. And he had no voice. He is just a good heart because he is a man of incredible faith. James Augustine was in church because his girlfriend attended our church. These guys were like rock stars at that moment.

When Weber received the Amicus Certus Award by Lutheran Social Services, I got to give the blessing and invocation at the beginning. Now, I even have an orange-and-blue stole.

Tell us the story of how you wound up becoming a Christian.

I grew up in Chicago. My first experience going to church was when I was 8 years old. The Girl Scouts met at the Lutheran church, and my Girl Scout leader, who lived on the same street as us, invited me to sing in the junior choir. So my first memory of church was singing in the choir.

Then my Girl Scout leader invited me to start coming for Sunday school. It hooked me. I felt a sense of belonging there.

When I was 13 years old, I was baptized into the church. It was a Saturday, a private baptism. It was a special moment. I thought the sky would open, and Charlton Heston would speak, but that didn't happen.

My dad was rather opposed to all my church involvement. He didn't belong to any church. He had gone to a lot of churches as a kid and never took to it.

My mother was pretty cool with it, considering she was Jewish. I have always said there is nobody who has zeal like a convert does.

What activities were you involved in during your days at Foreman High School?

I was in the band. I played the French horn. I had wanted to play the oboe, and my band director asked me to show my jaw and teeth — I didn't have braces, and the director said the reeds are for the kids who have braces.

Since I had good, straight teeth, they wanted me to play brass. So I asked which brass instrument is the hardest. When they said French horn, I said I wanted to play the French horn.

I was a library volunteer. I was a volunteer reader for the blind students. We would read the textbooks to the blind students during study hour. And I was in Future Teachers of America.

Your degree is in secondary education. What made you want to teach?

I always just loved teaching. One of the things I like about being a pastor is that I can still teach. I had a dual degree in speech communications and English.

How did you end up serving as a missionary in Japan?

I taught in Japan for three years. My home-church pastor was a former missionary in Japan. He tickled my interest in becoming a missionary. There was a lay program where you could become a lay missionary. And I applied for the Japan program through the Lutheran Church of America.

I was teaching English at a Lutheran boys' high school in southern Japan. I really enjoyed it. I am still in touch with one of my former students. I enjoyed learning the culture and the history.

I would say it was one of the seminal experiences of my life because it just opens up your world. The culture in Japan is antagonistic against Christian faith. People who enter Christian faith are seen as more individualists. It made it harder for my students to get jobs or get married. The Japanese word for Jesus is "Jesu." When I do chapel for the little kids here in St. Joseph in our creative learning center, we sing "Jesus Loves Me," and I was teaching them to sing it in Japanese.

How did you become a minister?

I felt a tug to do something in the church. I felt like I had some kind of a call. When I said something about becoming a pastor to one of my friends' mother, she said I couldn't become a pastor since I was a girl. The first ordained women in the Lutheran Church didn't happen until 1970 and 1971.

But I felt the call. I felt that Jesus had done something in my life, and it was rather personal. But also I felt the sense of community and what Christians could do to help society and the world. From that came a desire to pay it forward.

When and where were you ordained?

I was ordained in Chicago on July 17, 1983. It was hotter than blazes, and I was in a non-air-conditioned church. In the middle of the service, there was a roaring thunderstorm. After that, the sun immediately came out; it was a steam bath.

I don't have any pictures of that day because I looked like I had gone into a shower in my robe.

If you could meet anyone from the Bible, who would it be?

St. Peter. I like Peter because he struggled. He was faithful, but he really made some mistakes. He really was an idiot sometimes, when you think about him betraying Jesus and how many times he just blundered.

When Jesus said he would wash his feet, Peter said, "Wash not just my feet, but my head and my hands, too." To think he is considered the first pope by the Catholic faith.

I would love to write a book about how Peter felt between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. How did he process things? How did he live with himself?

Do you have any hobbies?

I adore Cubs baseball. I'm a baseball fanatic.

I like to read mystery novels. My favorite mystery writer is Rhys Bowen. I also love Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle. I like all those good oldies. And I like the Father Brown mysteries by G.K. Chesterton. The books are even better than the TV shows.

I enjoy cooking. I like making big family meals for when our kids and grandkids come over. And I like cooking for my husband. I cook sugar-free pies. He is so appreciative.

I like going to movies once in a while, but I only go to dumb movies.

Favorite vacation destination?

Barcelona, Spain. We were on a cruise. We booked into a hotel across the plaza from the old cathedral in Barcelona. We did a lot of walking around and did the city tour. I follow Barcelona soccer now partially because of that.

How about a favorite food?

If I had my druthers, I would like a good, authentic corned-beef sandwich on rye.

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