Rev. Dr. Richard Smith, openly gay priest serving at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in San Francisco, was asked by a parishioner to relate his life journey. This is what Richard wrote:
Shortly after I was born under the silvery skies of Seattle, my parents divorced. My sister and I lived with our mom, and although she was not religious, my mom worked very hard as a bookkeeper to send us to Catholic schools. The day before I was to start first grade, as part of the entrance requirement, she dutifully brought me to the local priest for baptism. The next day I was in a strange new world. It had nuns with their white robes and clanking beads, scores of Italian kids from big families, votive candles, and madonnas with graciously outstretched arms. It was, as Gary Wills writes, a ghetto to be sure, but not a bad one to grow up in.
Years later, with the arrival of testosterone, I was off to an all-boys Catholic high school, a boarding school on the edge of beautiful Lake Washington. I endured the teen-age bravado of my peers, had to work hard to get good grades, and received more than one whack on the head with a Latin grammar by a cassocked professor demanding the first person pluperfect of the verb amare. I hated basketball and football, got pretty good at baseball, but rocked on the handball courts and in informal races with my friends through the evergreen hills along the Lake.
After graduation, most of my classmates departed for one of the local universities, some enlisted for Vietnam, and a few of us went to the seminary. I chose the Jesuits; they were not only smart, but also fun to hang out with. Cool guys. (I still think this about them.) And many of them were already beginning, as I was, to question the U.S. involvement in Vietnam—a questioning that would lead me a few years later to burn my draft card.
After eleven years of Jesuit spiritual and academic formation, I was ordained a priest in Seattle in 1978. Over the next 13 years, I went to an African-American parish on the south side of Chicago, then to three different parishes in Washington State, and then for a Ph.D. in Ethics and Social Theory in Berkeley. Shortly after my ordination, the Catholic world began to see Pope John Paul II vigorously rolling back the changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council—changes I had found exhilarating and life-giving. Many of my greatest heroes were silenced and ostracized: the superior general of the Jesuits, the archbishop who ordained me and many prophetic theologians in the U.S. and Latin America.
It was a confusing time for me. I loved being a priest and the privilege of sharing both the vulnerabilities and joys of the people in my parishes. But I was also discouraged by the dark spirit enveloping the larger church and the spiritual toll it was taking on those same people—whether they were divorcees, young couples living together, or families who simply could not afford more kids. Or gay people like me.
This was the personal side to my struggle. Up to this time, I had told only a few friends that I was gay. It wasn't until doctoral studies in Berkeley that I found the leisure to take stock of my own life and ministry.
For several years I had argued liberation theology with the best of them. I had encouraged Blacks and Latinos and women to step forward, claim their own dignity, and not lower their eyes to anyone. It was the right message, but in my own life as a gay man I had remained silent. As I watched AIDS taking an unimaginable toll on the gay community, saw gay men in their twenties walking with canes, the contradictions became harder to bear. Something would have to give.
I talked with both gay and straight friends, spiritual directors, and Jesuit superiors. And I prayed…a lot.
To try and sort it out intellectually, I decided to write my doctoral dissertation on gays in the Catholic Church. Published in 1994 by the Pilgrim Press, my dissertation received an award for outstanding scholarship on human rights in North America.
One year into the writing, I started to think the unthinkable: that the same God who had once invited me to take vows as a Jesuit was now inviting me to leave the Order and start life over. I was exhilarated at the challenges and possibilities, but I grieved the loss of the Jesuits, those remarkable men who had been my family for 24 years.
Then, one sunny morning at a gay men's workshop in Oakland, I met Rob. He was wearing khakis and a white shirt and was discussing a new CD by Alicia De Larocha. He flashed his endearing smile at me, and my heart melted (as it does to this day). The rest is history. After ten years together we “married” at St. John the Evangelist in the presence of my mom, Rob's brother from Malaysia, and many friends and fellow parishioners. A year later, we brought home our son, David, from Guatemala—over my mom's worried objections.
When she first heard we were thinking of adopting a child, my mom became furious—“You're clueless about raising a kid.” “You'll never have the time.” Gay men don't do this.”—until we brought David to meet her in Seattle. He was thirteen months old then, and in the back seat of the car, on the way to her place from the airport, he fell asleep in her arms. With that simple act David stole her heart, and all her worries and objections evaporated.
A couple of months before we brought David home, I knelt before Bishop Swing at Grace Cathedral to be received as an Episcopal priest. I had been an Episcopalian for nine years, but with a dissertation to finish, a heavy teaching load at three Bay Area universities, and an eventual career change into the complex world of Silicon Valley technical writing (a move I made to pay the bills) I had had no time to think about priesthood. It was only at the suggestion of David Norgard, the rector of St. Johns the Evangelist at the time, that I began to consider it. And it wasn't until that day at Grace Cathedral—with tears running down my face at hearing the bishop declare “I receive you as a priest of the Episcopal Church”—that I realized how much I had missed my life as a priest.
On that day I was an openly gay man, a husband, a dad, and a priest. Was I dreaming this? There had been a time when I didn't know such a thing would ever be possible.
The years have flown by. Rob and I have been together 23 years. Our son is a handsome, fast-growing middle-schooler at Synergy School here in the Mission District. Rob is a software engineer for a startup in San Bruno. I have just completed fifteen years as a technical writer at Oracle before leaving that position to take up two part-time jobs: Vicar at St. John's, and Community Organizer for the San Francisco Organizing Project. In the latter job, I focus on two issues important to the people in our neighborhood: immigration reform and violence prevention.
Afterword: For a long time, I have had a sneaking suspicion that, despite all my efforts to the contrary, God has been conspiring 24/7 behind my back to make my life wonderful and my heart very, very full. Writing this story now makes me even more convinced that this is true.
(This biographical statement provided by Richard Smith.)
Biography Date: February, 2013
“I was in that Catholic high school with Richard (who was affectionately known as Dick or Dickie Dammit). The high school was actually the minor seminary, St. Edwards, and the teacher that whacked him on the back of the head was named “Chud,” short for Frederick Chudzinski. I remember thinking that Richard had a lot of “balls” to go off to the Jebbies and effectively start his training all over again. I had only eight years left! I haven’t seen him since we bumped into each other at a Campaign for Human Development meeting a long time ago. He still has a great sense of humor and, from the photo, the same sly smile and twinkle in his eye. Although St. Ed’s is closed now--it is a state park--there will be a golden jubilee celebration in September for the classes of the 70’s and 80’s.”
– as remembered by Steve Brazen on March 4, 2014