One would be hard pressed to say anything bad about Rev. Noah Smith (1908-2015). He passed away September 24 at age 107 after a brief illness. His home-going service was held September 30 at Wayman AME Church in North Minneapolis.
“I can’t imagine him being angry,” noted retired history professor Mahmoud El-Kati on Rev. Smith.
Smith moved to the Cities in the early 1950s as a railroad car waiter when being in a traveling jazz band for several years prior didn’t provide the financial resources he needed to care for him and his family. He accepted the call to ministry in 1954, first as an evangelist at St. Peter’s AME in South Minneapolis, where he later was ordained a minister in 1960, then a pastor at two churches — St. Mark’s AME in Duluth and St. James AME, Minneapolis, where he served as senior pastor until his mandatory retirement in 1998.
Smith, however, never retired: He taught weekly Bible classes, founded the Wayman Bible Institute, and regularly preached as a member of the Wayman’s ministerial staff and at other local churches when called upon for another 16 years until late this summer.
“You can’t sum it up in an hour and a half,” admitted Rev. William Smith (no relation), pastor of Lily of The Valley AME Church in Apple Valley, Minn. Rev. Noah Smith and his wife Hallie attended services there on September 6, his final worship service that he would attend in person. He went into the hospital shortly after that.
Rev. William Smith said though noticeably not at full strength, Rev. Noah Smith nonetheless volunteered and gave the scripture lesson during the order of service. “They took a special liking to Lily of The Valley,” he said of the Smiths, who helped him start the first AME church in Minnesota in nearly 80 years in September 2007.
El-Kati, who was on the faculty of Macalester College at the time, got to know Rev. Smith when Smith attended the school for his religion degree at in the mid-1980s. “He’s the most genteel man I’ve ever talked to,” he recalled.
Smith also received the Sidney Barrow Award in Religion from Macalester in 1986, and later earned his master of divinity degree from United Theological Seminary in 1989 and an honorary doctorate from the school in 2013. At the time of his death, Smith was the oldest living minister in the U.S. still active in ministry.
“A man of great influence,” added Bishop Richard Howell of Shiloh Temple, one of several local ministers and pastors who spoke at Smith’s packed service last week.
“He set the perfect example on how he lived his life,” said Rev. Tracey Gibson. “I had the honor to sit at his feet and learned from him. I also had the honor of holding his arm” when he needed assistance, which until recently, and despite his advanced age, Rev. Smith rarely asked for it. “I believe I am a better person because of that.”
Rev. Jackie Robertson said, “His willing to share knowledge” and to admit that “he didn’t know it all” was what she most appreciated from Rev. Smith.
Rev. Dr. Alphonse Reff, Sr., the pastor of Wayman and St. Paul Minneapolis District presiding elder, called Rev. Smith “his father in the ministry” and always requested that he sit next to him at all meetings where he presided. He left a great legacy both locally and nationally, Reff pointed out.
“Rev. Smith was a great man of faith, a great pastor,” said AME Senior Bishop John R. Bryant from his Chicago office, who sent his condolences that were read aloud at last week’s services.
“He was one of the great theologians of all time,” although he wasn’t as well known, stated Reff. “Rev. Smith was a legend in his own time. I am happy to have sat at his feet and get the wisdom that he had. It was a blessing to have him serve on the ministerial staff at Wayman.”
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Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.