John Austin Smith ("Smittie" to me), a friend of mine and a legend of San Diego Youth Ministry in Churches of Christ passed away of a heart attack in his sleep yesterday. He was only 44 years old. In his 44 years, he impacted countless lives, including my own.
I first met him when I was serving as an intern at the La Mesa Church of Christ (in San Diego) as an intern back in the early 90's. He was a neighboring Youth Minister for the El Cajon Boulevard Church of Christ.
I liked him immediately. Not only because he was friendly, easy-going, and cared about young people. He really took me under his wing in a non-patronizing way when I was a 19-year-old intern. Those who respect and honor interns are the real deal. We spent a lot of that summer together, organizing camp together, etc. I learned a ton from him. He was one of those street-level sages who just understood people…he had an emotional IQ off the charts.
Our friendship continued and grew over the years. At the very least, each year at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures we would see one another, give each other a man-hug and catch up. Most recently he was living in the Portland area, running a camp that taught "green" farming techniques to underprivileged and at-risk youth.
His greatest legacy will be not only the kids that went through his youth group, but the number of kids in his youth group that went on to become youth ministers. He had an exponential impact, helping young people grow up to become leaders in the church while never letting them feel unloved for even a split-second.
We church folk don't appreciate and care for our youth ministers nearly enough. They often serve as the "low man/woman on the totem pole" in the eyes of the church, even as they partner with God to shape the next generation spiritually. We need to do better here.
Here at NCCC, we just hired one of Smittie's former youth group kids to serve in Youth Ministry. I knew that if Smittie was a mentor for him, he'd seen Youth Ministry done the right way–out of sheer passion for God's work in the lives of young people. Smittie left a wonderful spiritual legacy, and I am honored to have known him.
R.I.P., Smittie. I'll be seeing you.