Shepherd to the fringes

Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town’s garbage heap; at a crossroad so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and Latin and Greek … at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where He died. And that is what He died for. And that is what He died about. That is where churchmen ought to be and what churchmen ought to be about.”– The Rev. George Macleod, Church of Scotland clergyman and one of the founders of the Iona Community (1895-1991).

More than 20 years ago, I was sitting across the table in a Chinese restaurant in Nicholasville, Kentucky, when John Smith recited Macleod’s sentiments with righteous authority and a piercing gaze to describe part of the inspiration of the calling on his life. At that time, Smith, a well-known media commentator and evangelist to those on the cultural fringe in Australia, was doing doctoral work in missiology at Asbury Theological Seminary.  

As a well-scrubbed son of a Methodist minister and a brand new Bible school graduate in the late 1960s, Smith recalls driving past a “bunch of menacing-looking outlaw bikers parked by the side of the road. Oddly, I felt a surge of compassion for these guys who no one really wanted to know. I couldn’t see the local minister making much headway with people like that,” he wrote in his autobiography, On the Side of the Angels.

Smith began to pray that “God would raise up someone able to get alongside such outsiders and show them something of the love of Christ.” At that moment, he sensed the corresponding answer: “Why don’t you answer your own prayer.” Initially, he doubted the call – but eventually he became the president of God’s Squad Motorcycle Club and an authentic ambassador of Christ to the marginalized, rejected, and forsaken.  

John Smith died on March 6, 2019, after a long battle with cancer. He was 76 years old. Hundreds of bikers were in attendance at Smith’s funeral in Ocean Grove, a coastal community in the southeast of Australia, to pay their respects – including those from the Hell’s Angels, Gypsy Jokers, Bandidos, Coffin Cheaters, and Immortals. 

Sean Stillman, president of God’s Squad UK chapter and author of God’s Biker: Motorcycles and Misfits,described Smith at the funeral as an “academic, a pastor, a preacher, a prophetic voice, an irritant to a comfortable church, an advocate for justice, the poor, the marginalized, and the arts.” More significantly, Stillman said, was his role as husband to Glena, Smith’s wife, and father to his three children and 17 grandchildren. 

With a gregarious personality and an encyclopedic knowledge of poetry, pop culture, ecology, philosophy, and theology, Smith garnered attention and stirred controversy through his Christian message, advocacy for social justice, and roaring motorcycles. His appeal was infectious. Currently, there are God’s Squad members in 16 nations around the globe. 

Stillman reported on Smith’s ability to connect with men and women “whether it be in a smoky clubhouse bar, backstage at a rock ‘n roll gig, or in the corridors of political power, a chapel pulpit, a street corner talking to a complete stranger, sitting amid Indigenous communities, engaging in academic dialogue, or crying in the pouring rain at a graveside with a grieving family.”

Smith spoke at rock festivals, biker rallies, government hearings, secondary schools, and before the United Nations Human Rights Commission. But his real love was talking one on one with someone who felt alienated from God and the church.

“For Smithy, the road was the place of discipleship and mission, and like John Wesley, one of his mission inspirations, the world very much became his parish,” said Stillman. “It was where you worked out what it meant to be a follower of his hero, Jesus of NazarethThe road would take you to the marginalized. He taught us that the Gospel still ought to be good news for the poor and uncomfortable news for the powerful.”

Smith was a tireless advocate for human rights and indigenous peoples. Aunty Jean Phillips, an Aboriginal Christian leader from Queensland, testified at the funeral to Smith’s friendship with the Aboriginal community and recalled his “real heart for justice.”

An email from U2 frontman Bono was even read at the funeral. “To John the Bible was an incendiary tract – not some handbook on religion,” wrote Bono. “It was not a sop for mankind’s fear of death – it was an epic poem about life. It spoke about culture, about politics, about justice.” U2 first became acquainted with Smith while touring through Australia in 1984 during the “Unforgettable Fire” tour. 

Interestingly enough, the last time I saw John and his wife Glena was after a U2 concert in Chicago on Bono’s birthday during the Vertigo tour. John asked if my friend, Father Kenneth Tanner (page 13), and I could give them a lift across town after the show. They sat in the back and talked about loving the concert but being too tired to attend the after-gig birthday bash for Bono. We dutifully drove them up Lake Shore Drive to the Jesus People commune – silently wishing they had given us their passes to the after party.  

Bono’s message at the funeral was spot-on: “When Bob Dylan sang ‘always on the other side of whatever side there was,’ he might have been singing about John, an outsider in an outsider community, an outlaw of a different kind preparing the way for the coming of a different kind of world, speaking truth to power.

“In our last meeting he spoke truth to me, gave me a hell of a hard time, thought I had gone soft and become too comfortable around the powerful. Thought I was living too well,” Bono recalled. “He was probably right. I still think about it.”

That was John Smith. He had the arched brow of an Old Testament prophet but the tenderness of Jesus welcoming the little children into his presence. He was pastoral and irritating. Not everyone can pull that off. It just seemed authentic with John Smith.

“For 35 years, I have been discovering that the world isn’t nearly as hostile to the gospel as I thought it would be. It is not nearly as frightening as we have been told it will be,” he wrote in the pages of Good Newstwo decades ago. “Outside the walls of the church there are many people who want to be loved and would love to have a connection with someone that didn’t treat them like a prize to be won, but persons to be loved….

“I have spent most of my life rubbing shoulders with hippies, outlaw bikers, high school students, secular non-churched folk, artists, and just ordinary people,” Smith continued. “Sure, there are murderers and dangerous people out in the real world. But I have discovered that most people who look a bit scary are actually quite ordinary. At the same time, a lot of people who look very suave are actually very dangerous. The mafia doesn’t go around looking like hippies. They wear the best Italian suits. So if you are going to judge from appearances, you’ll fail from the start. As Jesus said, man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart.”

That was the heartbeat of his message to the church.

John Smith “remained passionate about the need for the message of Jesus to be faithfully proclaimed in the public sphere, but he also taught us that it should be something that should be lived,” concluded Stillman. “Putting it into practice was not an optional extra.”

Ride on, Brother John. Thanks for the arched brow and the grin. RIP.