When Dr. Rev. Kenny Smith came to Vienna First Baptist Church 20 years ago, "we needed healing, and he's a healer," said Naomi Pearson, who was the church clerk at the time. "He brought the congregation together."
The church had recently experienced a split, she said, and membership had dropped to about 250 people. After the arrival of Smith and his wife, Rev. Mary Smith, "it began to grow immediately," said Pearson. First Baptist now has more than 1,300 members.
Church member Norma Jean Eleazer said it was Smith's compassion and love that drew congregants to him.
Fellow member Gloria Runyon said it was his sincerity.
"He loves people, and people seem to love him," Deacon Carl Biggs told 320 or so people that filled the Lord Fairfax Ballroom at the Tysons Corner Sheraton Sunday evening for a banquet that culminated the church's weekend-long celebration of Smith's 20-year stay. Biggs said he had learned many lessons from Smith, and he offered, as an example, a story about an acquaintance he called "Mr. Stubborn."
Mr. Stubborn, who happened to be a friend of Smith's, had invested his money unwisely and against Biggs' advice and had ended up bankrupt, he told the crowd. Biggs recalled getting a phone call from Smith letting him know that Mr. Stubborn was in dire financial straits and that Smith was going to loan him $1,000. Smith had asked if Biggs might do likewise. After hemming and hawing, Biggs said, he relented.
"I hung up, and I thought, 'I've been had. I've been bamboozled,'" he said. He decided he would turn the tables and ask Smith to help the next of his own friends who reached financial crisis. "Then I realized, I don't have a friend I would give $1,000 to. I don't love my friends like he does," Biggs recounted. "I told you he's a great teacher."
"He's a very good speaker, for one thing," said church member Gordon Carter. "There are people that come on Sundays, that don't even belong to the church, just to hear him speak."
"He don't need to know you to preach your funeral," added Carter's mother, Esther.
"He can take any kind of text, and he can deliver the message home to you," said Gordon Carter.
His sister, DeArmond Carter, said Smith had proven to be a strong community leader. "He started a lot of programs and ministries at the church," she said, adding that her own daughter had attended the academic tutoring program Smith had started at First Baptist. After she went on to earn high marks at Virginia State University, "she always stated that having the tutoring program at the church, it made her really successful at school," DeArmond Carter said of her daughter.
DR. PATRICIA GOULD-CHAMP imparted some background on Smith in the form of quizzes. "Rev. Smith was born — A: By the river in a little tent, and, just like the river, he's been running ever since. B: With a silver spoon in his mouth. C: in Atlanta, Ga.," she quizzed the audience.
She asked whether he joined the church after retiring "A: from the CIA as an international spy, B: from the music industry, as a rap artist, or C: after retiring from the United States Air Force."
For those who have not guessed, the answer was always "C."
Smith holds a business management degree from the University of Nebraska, a Master of Divinity degree from Howard University and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Virginia Union University.
Last year, he was elected president of the Baptist General Convention of Virginia. He is a two-time former president of the Fairfax County NAACP, an adjunct professor at Howard University and a visiting professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, and he serves or has served on numerous boards, including the Board of the Baptist General Convention, the Vienna Church Coalition for Housing, the Board of Directors for Habitat for Humanity and several others.
Like his involvements, his awards and honors are too many to list, but they include the Religious Affairs award presented by the Fairfax County NAACP, the Outstanding Leadership award presented by the Northern Virginia Baptist Association, the Golden Eagle award presented by Fairfax County Public Schools and the Human Rights award presented by the Fairfax County Human Rights Commission.
Diana Smith-Jackson, who chairs First Baptist's Board of Trustees, said Smith started a new-members ministry at the church, as well as mentoring programs for young men and women, and he helped to found the Vienna Church Coalition for Housing. Smith-Jackson noted that he also got the church involved in local Habitat for Humanity projects and cooperative efforts abroad with Vienna Presbyterian Church.
Smith's wife, she said, facilitates the new-members ministry, conducts worship services at local Sunrise Assisted Living facilities and heads the church's sewing ministry.
"They're very caring, loving, nurturing kind of people," said Smith-Jackson. "Pastor Smith has been put here at this time in history to fulfill a special purpose, not only for the younger generation, but for the whole congregation."
"HE CAME TO US with a vision for God's people and for our church," Rev. Clevester Hawkins told the crowd assembled at the Sheraton. "So let us celebrate this 20th anniversary of Dr. Rev. Kenny Smith and Rev. Mary Smith with joy and thanksgiving."
It is his congregation's willingness to embrace his vision that Smith said he has most appreciated during his stay at First Baptist. "I came from a humble beginning, and I have been blessed, so I have a burden to give back," he said, adding that the church has "provided a venue for that."
He enumerated some of the ways his congregation has worked with him on outreach programs. The church gave about $45,000 to tsunami victims, $25,000 for aid in Niger and $30,000 for restoration efforts following Hurricane Katrina. Three teams from the church traveled to Mississippi to help rebuild after the hurricane.
At Thanksgiving time, 60 local families received two weeks' worth of food from the church. First Baptist also helped build two Habitat for Humanity houses in the area.
Together with Vienna Presbyterian Church, First Baptist has undertaken extensive efforts to help residents of the town of Pignon in Haiti, said Smith. They have provided the town's hospital with medical supplies. They have delivered pregnant goats to villagers in order to help them support themselves. They give micro-loans to single women and pay for children's schooling. He said they are also endeavoring to bring a clean water pipeline to the town, to improve roads and to get locals involved in the mango trade.
Smith said cooperating with Vienna Presbyterian is important, in part, because it builds ties between denominations and races. While the First Baptist Church congregation is primarily black, Vienna Presbyterian Church is primarily white. "We're blessing the people we're helping, but we're also learning to work together to help the community," he said.
In the future, said Smith, he hopes the church can build a family life center in town, to care for adopted families and house counseling and senior programs, and to be used for community outreach. "I may not see it, but I want to get the land for it," he said.
Smith said he was grateful that the church had provided the opportunity and the means for him to be involved in such projects, and in the wider Baptist community. "I'm convinced that these things have come my way because I was the pastor of this church," he said.