By Andréa Byrne
Reverend Sara Smith has come a long way from the Hodgenville, Kentucky farm she grew up on. It’s the town where Abraham Lincoln was born and lived until he was seven years old, and in fact the Lincoln Trail goes through the family property. Though she now lives and works in Bridgeport, her long-ago life on that farm is deep in her heart, and the phrase she uses for her many accomplishments is that she has ‘plowed the field’ for others.
When the farm was in financial jeopardy, she decided that in order to save it she would go to law school. Sadly, they lost the farm before she had earned her JD (Doctor of Jurisprudence) in 1988 from the University of Houston, after having completed her undergraduate studies at Texas Christian University (TCU). But it was while at TCU that she found her voice and began to “plow the field” in whole new ways. As an undergraduate she served as the third female ever elected as Student Body President, and was honored as “Outstanding Senior Student”.
During law school, she became the first woman Chairperson of the American Bar Association’s Law Student Division, which is the world’s largest student organization. In this role she traveled the country and met many notable women, including Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sarah Weddington, who represented “Jane Roe” at the U.S. Supreme court Roe v. Wade case. “These women were pioneers, paving the way for so many of us,” she says. “And I found that I was one of them.”
It was while working as a trial attorney for the U.S. Dept. of Labor that she realized she was a lesbian. She struggled for more than a year in coming to terms with that, but never believed that it was wrong. Her fears were about what her family and friends would think, but her religious teachings assured her that God loves us as we are. “In that time,” she says, “God became my breath.”
She grew dissatisfied with a career in law, and while at a Bible study someone suggested she become a minister. She scoffed at the idea then, even though as a child that’s what she wanted to be. She recalls that it was a July day when she just couldn’t handle law anymore and considered the ministry.
“I’d never prayed this way before,” she says, “but I told God if this is what you want of me, I need a sign, and right now!”
A day later, without having put out any request nor any contact with the school, she was stunned to receive a call from TCU’s Bright Divinity School offering to pay for her tuition and books. One of her previous mentors had made the connection, believing that was her true calling.
She had viewed a career in law as a way of being a problem-solver, and saw that a career in the ministry offered the same opportunity, in perhaps a more meaningful way. She accepted that offer and said another prayer.
“All right,” she said, “now I need a job. I’ve got to pay my living expenses.” Soon after that she was offered a part-time job at a legal firm, working on the case against Dow Corning regarding their faulty and dangerous breast implants.
Reverend Sara was raised in the United Methodist church, which refused to ordain homosexuals, so while in divinity school she changed to United Church of Christ (UCC). She and her partner became the first gay couple in married student housing.
Following graduation, she came out to her family, who she knew would question why she changed churches. While her mother initially did not take this well, the rest of her family were supportive. On March 9, 1996, she became one of the first twenty gay clergy in this country ordained by the UCC. Her first call in ministry was to serve as the Ecumenical Campus Minister at the University of Colorado in Boulder where, with her energetic spirit, humor and faith, she created a community that began with zero students but grew to 1,500 over the seven years she served there.
She didn’t consider preaching as a part of her ministry until she spoke at the campus about a University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard, who in 1998 was beaten to death for being gay. The standing ovation she received gave her the confidence that this was a gift she’d been given to use. Throughout her 30 year career, preaching has become one of her most noted qualities.
From Colorado, she went to Buffalo, NY, to interview and was met with great resistance by the search committee, who had no interest in even meeting her partner. One member of the committee, though, was adamant that Reverend Sara was the one to take their church in a new direction. She forced the committee to more closely examine Reverend Sara’s history and all that she had accomplished through her academic, legal and ministerial careers. After hearing her speak with passion for faith and social justice, she was called to be the first woman, and first openly gay pastor of the Kenilworth UCC in Buffalo – a historic first for that entire region.
Reverend Sara loved her 5 years in the Buffalo church. She is proud that she brought a congregation that had been looking only inward at a narrow vision of what a church should be, to one that now turns outward to embrace those marginalized and those in need. Her historic call to this church was included in a film made by the national UCC called ‘LOOK WHO GOD SENT,’ which is viewed by 500 search committees each year across the country, to help open the doors for LGBTQ, Minority, Handicapped, and Women to be selected as pastors.
Reverend Sara came to Connecticut in 2009 with offers from five churches, including the 327 year-old United Congregational Church at 877 Park Avenue. in Bridgeport, one of the oldest continuous congregations in North America. That congregation welcomed both her and her partner with love, pleased that Reverend Sara was interested in, as she puts it, a “challenge church”, and she was unanimously voted to serve as its first woman and first openly gay Senior Minister. At the time the congregation would have 50 of its 300 members in the pews, now it has 150 active members.
But more important than the numbers is the spirit of the United congregation – it now is a very multi-racial, open and affirming of LGBTQ membership, people from all backgrounds and economic situations – welcoming everyone no matter who, no matter what, no matter where they are on their journeys, and the congregation has embraced being an urban church.
When Reverend Sara arrived, she walked the blocks around her big urban church building, meeting and getting to know the residents, many of whom were in desperate cirumstances. In 2010 she founded nOURish BRIDGEPORT, Inc., a 501c3, that is a separate entity from the church itself, but shares the church facilities and several staff to help those in need, where she serves as President/CEO. Volunteers come from other churches and synagogues and mosques near and far to prepare and serve hot meals to 250 neighbors per week; a Super Food Pantry distributes fresh produce, perishable and non-perishable groceries to 1,200 neighbors per week; and the Baby Center provides formula, food, wipes and diapers to 100 babies per week.
In 2017 the congregation voted to sell their magnificent old building due to the excessive overhead. They felt the money could be better spent in helping people, so they moved to the Bessemer Center at 2200 North Avenue. In addition to the above direct service programs, nOURish BRIDGEPORT provides:
- English as a Second Language, Citizenship and Financial Literacy classes to 100 neighbors per week;
- Thanksgiving Feast in a Box to 500 families per year;
- Stratfield Farmers Market weekly;
- Urban Work Boot Camp for suburban youth to learn about food insecurity and hunger
The newest exciting addition is the nOURish Indoor Hydroponic Farm located in Stratford, which will be able to grow produce year-round for distribution to local food pantries and farmers markets. It is scheduled to open this year on June 1st.
Plans are in the making to renovate the kitchen of the Bessemer Center to become a culinary arts training center that will ultimately provide jobs for some of the people currently being served. The aim is to make more neighbors self-sufficient.
The driving force behind all of this is Reverend Sara Smith, who in addition to her position as Senior Minister of the church and President/CEO of nOURish, also serves as the Protestant Chaplain at Sacred Heart University. Reverend Sara knows more than anyone that no one does this kind of work alone. She sees first-hand the many needs of others and relies on her board of directors and a wide range of volunteers and donors to meet those needs.
“With nine churches a day closing,” she says, “my goal is to re-invent the church to become the hub of goodness. You can’t give a hungry person a plate of food and stay the same. Once people who have power truly serve others, they are changed forever.”
To learn more, go to www.nourishbpt.org
To volunteer, contact Lynn Hudler, Volunteer Coorindator at firstname.lastname@example.org