If the Rev. Franklin Smith hadn’t existed, television producer Norman Lear would have had to create him as a foil for Archie Bunker.
Smith, who died at 87 in Miami on Jan. 24, used the pulpit of his church to fight social injustice.
“He was very non-judgmental,” said his daughter Elizabeth Smith. “He was very concerned about people and the church caring about social issues — which got him in a lot of hot water at times.”
The Rev. Smith used his position to speak out against the Vietnam war, to talk about civil rights, Florida farmworkers’ conditions in the 1970s, gay and lesbian issues.
“Not everybody wanted to hear that,” his daughter said. “People felt political issues didn’t naturally belong in the church, but his political beliefs were very much informed by his faith.”
Plus, “Jesus was a radical,” she said. Like the spiritual leader, Smith said her father “felt it was important to be vocal about inequities and injustice.”
Born in Clearwater on Sept. 4, 1927 and raised in Largo, Florida, Smith graduated from Emory University and Boston University School of Theology. From 1958 to 1963, he served as chaplain at Soochow University, a Methodist school in Taipei, Taiwan. He studied Mandarin for a year at Yale to prepare.
But he opted for only one five-year stint in Taiwan. “He was an only child and his parents were elderly at that point and the civil rights movement was going on and he felt strongly that he wanted to be in this country and working on that issue,” Smith said.
Back in the States, in the early 1970s, he took up the plight of local migrant farmworkers and crusaded for better working conditions. He traveled on behalf of the United Methodist Committee on Relief to address world hunger, clean water, agricultural productivity and to open health clinics in Africa, Asia and Central America. He was active with Haitian and Latin groups — the Haitian Refugee Center and Americans for Immigrant Justice, respectively — and the local YES Institute, an organization that counsels youth on gender and orientation.
“He stood out on U.S.1 before the Iraq War every Friday night, faithfully he kept it up,” said his wife, Isabelle Hill. “He had a long history of that kind of action. He was also part of the demonstration to get the janitors at the UM their wages and sat out on U.S.1 for that. He never stopped.”
Smith’s children also participated with him. Daughter Jeannine, at age 12, for instance, could be found picketing with him during the grape boycott days on behalf of the migrant farm workers. Son Cleve accompanied him on one of his trips to Haiti. “We all had our eyes opened,” said Elizabeth Smith. “Our awareness of worlds beyond our own expanded because of him.”
Among the local churches he helped, Smith organized a Spanish-language congregation at Coral Way United Methodist, which, for a time, boasted the largest Hispanic congregation in the conference in Florida, his daughter said.
“That is how I got introduced to Cuban food,” Elizabeth Smith said, chuckling. “They would have monthly dinners after church on Sundays to which we were invited because we were the minister’s family and it was great.”
At the 122-year-old Grace United Methodist Church in Lemon City, Smith helped organize its Haitian congregation in the mid-1980s.
“My dad was a huge influence on me,” said Smith, a hospice and palliative nurse in Brooklyn. “He really raised me to be open to all kinds of people.”
When she came out to her parents around 1980, her father quickly joined the PFLAG family and ally organization. “One of my favorite photographs is him marching in New York with me, carrying a sign that says, ‘We Love Our Gay Children.’ My friends at the time were so much in awe that he would do that and so jealous, too. To me, it was like no big deal because he marched for everything. This was par for the course.”
In addition to his wife and children, the Rev. Smith is survived by stepchildren Matthew Hill and Allyson Jayaweera and five grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Riviera Presbyterian Church, 5275 Sunset Dr., Miami-Dade.
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.