The Great Connector

March 2010
Written By: 
Paul Grimshaw
Photographs by: 
Bobby Altman

Bishop John Smith, Jr.’s, ministry began on Brooklyn radio waves and grew along the tidal waters of Georgetown’s historic port city

Birthplace: Charleston, South Carolina

Education: Lincoln High School, Charleston; U.S. Navy, 2 years; attended Myers School of Fashion Design, New York City; graduated Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ Bible College, New York City

Previous Work: United Merchants and Manufacturing, New York City

Community Involvement: Bishop Smith is one of 21 leaders who are part of Horry and Georgetown counties’ American Leadership Forum, an initiative to spurn effective communication and progress between the two counties. “There’s power in connection,” Smith says.

Georgetown, South Carolina, is a city of contrasts. Those who drive along U.S. Highway 17 without stopping will know little of its history or charm, and see only its industrial face. But the paper mill and the steel mill, their smokestacks and emissions visible for miles, are only part of Georgetown’s legacy. Its historic waterfront, dozens of pre-Revolution-era buildings, a weatlth of antebellum homes, and a population of nearly 60 percent African-Americans are the oft-overlooked aspects of this quaint port city.

And hundreds of Georgetown’s denizens, many who can trace their lineage back five generations or more, look to Bishop John Smith, Jr., as not only a spiritual leader but also a community redeveloper.

As pastor of the Greater Bibleway Church for more than thirty years, Smith has for a long time preached from the pulpit. His ministry has grown to include a large church, one of the largest in the city, and the Bibleway Learning Center (school and daycare). But the church, its school and daycare, and dreams for a large community center across the street on land already purchased, all began as a little AM-radio ministry in Brooklyn, New York, in the mid-1970s.

Smith clearly remembers the day, while still in Brooklyn, that a misunderstood invitation changed his life. “I was about 22, I guess, and going to school in New York for dress designing. I met a young lady who invited me to a party, or so I thought, and when I got there, it was church. I went in, there were about 400 people, and the church was really rockin’. It was not what I thought church was, the kind that puts you to sleep,” Smith chuckles, his smile lighting up the dim room. “If you’re going to be a fishermen, you gotta know what kind of bait to use. It was the first church I’d been to that had real music. I got hooked, started going to church, got saved, and then went to school at Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ Bible College in New York.”

Smith sent his radio tapes all over the country, including to Georgetown where they were well-received. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Smith visited Georgetown on short ministry trips from New York and decided to return to the Lowcountry in 1977 to a permanent one, initially out of his garage. The bishop, a tall man with an easy laugh, snow-white hair, and well-trimmed beard to match, explains that he’d been sending tapes to be broadcast on WGTN (1400 AM) and WQIZ (810 AM). “A guy here said to me, ‘Thanks for helping to get all those people saved, but they need a pastor.’” Already affiliated with the Greater Bibleway denomination, Smith answered the call and moved his young family to establish a church.

Today, he leads a staff of fifteen, pastors a growing congregation, and finds himself championing a vision for community cohesiveness that focuses heavily on serving youth—from infant childcare to after-school programs for preteens.

As he offers a tour of the current campus, it becomes clear Smith not only knows every inch of the two buildings that make it up, but he also has a distinct vision of exactly what it will look like many years from now. The older compound, which housed the first sanctuary from 1977 to 1998, is now home to the daycare and learning center. The new sanctuary, eleven years old, is large—seating 800—modern, and attractive. And the original sanctuary is now the Bibleway Learning Center, which uses the space to teach and care for children from infants to third graders.

Smith, who likes to think in terms of ten-year plans, says a community center is next on his agenda. Land has already been purchased, and the facility will be named in honor of Terrance Sargeant, a Coastal Carolina University student and the son of one of his staff who was killed in a carjacking. Smith’s son, Jamel, is the youth minister and runs a weekly program utilized by eighty middle school students. The community center will give even more youth a place to congregate.

But Smith is no stranger to extending his reach beyond the realm of his church. Jonathan Kresken, president of Waccamaw Community Foundation that serves nonprofit organizations throughout Georgetown and Horry counties, knows firsthand the impact Bishop Smith’s involvement has had on the community at-large: “I met Bishop Smith through the American Leadership Forum and the year-long class we were in together. . . . I am so impressed with his ability to foster communication between people. He’s so genuine and real, and his ability to cross social, economic, and ethnic barriers is a gift.”

Though Smith aims to impact the entire Georgetown community, breaking the racial barrier is a challenge for his church, like most. “We are ethnically mixed in our daycare, and I’m proud of that. It’s a slow process. I think peer pressure stops some people from going to a black church with a black pastor. I always felt like God was saying to me: ‘You’re in Georgetown as a person of love—invite every church in, invite all your competition, other churches, and hold fellowship services on Sunday nights.’” So Smith did. “We paid pastors to preach here, and we’ve had large crowds of black and white, so it proves it can happen.”

Smith’s family further extends his reach. Besides his son Jamel, Bishop Smith’s wife, Joan Smith, a retired banker, is also actively involved in support capacities. His son Jeremy is there to lend a hand, along with a dedicated board and volunteers, who all make up the Smith’s larger family.

And these days, four radio stations along the South Carolina coast broadcast his message, resonating in the immediate community and on the airwaves afar:
“I think our mission is to make life better for people, and to serve.”