Noe Valley Voice July-August 2009

Remembering Carl Smith, 1931-2008

By John Bird

"What can you make with an old church, a creative community, and a changing neighborhood?" read an early Noe Valley Ministry brochure. That question must have been on the mind of Carl Smith when he first walked through the building that had been home to the Lebanon Presbyterian Church for nearly a century. A co-op nursery school, which rented space in the church, was the only sign of life. Windows rattled in their frames, paint flaked off the walls, and rows of ancient theater seats sat bolted to the floor in the upstairs sanctuary. It was June 1977, and the task facing the new pastor from Palo Alto was daunting.

The roots of Lebanon Presbyterian Church, the church he was inheriting, went deep. Founded in 1881, Lebanon had survived the Great Depression and flourished in the 1950s. But the 1960s had been difficult--indeed, the decade of social upheaval had been especially hard on neighborhood churches. By the early '70s, Lebanon's membership had dwindled to eight members.

When Carl Smith arrived at the door of of 1021 Sanchez Street with the informal title of "organizing pastor," his mission was clear: it was time to take the church in a whole new direction.

Carl, his wife Suzanne, and their two children moved into a house on 23rd Street near Castro that August. His background would serve him well as he set about recasting the Victorian-era church.

Training in Scotland

Born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, Carl received his master of divinity degree in 1958 from Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. That same year, he got married and was ordained a minister in the Presbyterian Church.

Carl and Suzanne flew to Scotland in 1960, where he spent a summer with the Iona Community on the island of Iona in the Hebrides, working with a team of young ministers to help reconstruct buildings associated with the old abbey there. While at Iona, Carl adopted the group's meditation practices and pursued studies in peace and social tolerance. Back on the Scottish mainland, he served as an assistant minister at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Edinburgh.

In 1963, Carl and Suzanne were invited by three Presbyterian churches to start a new ministry in East Palo Alto. It would become the Mid-Peninsula Christian Ministry at Community House. At its zenith, MPCM coordinated the efforts of 12 area churches. Programs included operating a food co-op and sending 500 children to camp each summer. Carl's worship services during that time were based on the tenets he had learned at Iona and the Edinburgh church.

David Mann, an old friend and pastor whom Carl had mentored, remembers sharing an occasional dinner at Carl and Suzanne's home in East Palo Alto. "I was so struck by the informal 'liturgy' that preceded the family meal. Sharing, gratitude, prayers, and I think a song. It was magical."

An Ear to Noe Valley

In 1977, the Noe Valley neighborhood was feeling the early winds of change. There were two five-and-dime stores and a diner called Herb's. But a café-and-bookshop culture was emerging, and rents and home prices were on the rise. Longtime residents complained that the neighborhood was suffering from "boutiquism."

"Carl spent a lot of time that first year down on 24th Street," says wife Suzanne. He met with people in the neighborhood--shopkeepers, community organizers, and pastors from other local churches. He attended meetings of Friends of Noe Valley and the East & West of Castro Street Improvement Club. He asked people what they wanted for their neighborhood. They told him they wanted a neighborhood gathering space, a community center.

In March of 1978, the San Francisco Examiner reported that the Reverend Carl Smith of the Noe Valley Ministry had blessed a trash can that had just been installed on 24th Street between Noe and Castro streets. Carl was quoted as saying that the trash receptacle was "a useful instrument of our care for one another." Two dozen people, including a class of elementary kids from Alvarado School, came out to witness the event.

Carl also rolled up his sleeves and began organizing a cleanup and repair of the Ministry. One of his first renovation projects was to move the sidewalk-facing front entrance to the church so that it faced north, with a ramp to facilitate easier access by seniors and the disabled.

Creating a Community Center

Suzanne says there was "a certain spontaneity" to activities at the Ministry during that time. If a group needed a space to meet, host a concert, or have a dance rehearsal, Carl would offer the church. Eventually, he moved his office to his home, so that space could be used by "building sharers."

One of the first building sharers was the Noe Valley Voice, which moved into a back office in 1978. Larry Kassin, founder of the long-running Noe Valley Music Series, began producing jazz and folk concerts on Sunday afternoons in 1981. Notable musicians from those early years included Joan Baez and Bobby McFerrin. Under the direction of the Noe Valley Arts Forum--a group of local artists--art exhibits started popping up on the upstairs sanctuary walls at the Ministry.

In the early years, church volunteers handed out free burritos from a booth at the Noe Valley Street Fair--a precursor to the current Harvest Festival on 24th Street. There were potluck dinners and pancake breakfasts, and the Soup Lunch Bunch met once a week. AA groups signed up to use the space, as did many activist groups. The "no-nukes" movement had an office at the Ministry. Under Carl's leadership, the Ministry participated in the Sanctuary Movement--defending Central American refugees--and became known as a "peace church."

"A Spiritual Eclectic"

While Carl was building ties to the neighborhood, he also was starting a new worship community. In a 1979 report, Carl noted that attendance at Sunday-morning services was averaging 18 persons, "and it would be 35 to 40 if all the congregants gathered at the same time."

In June of 1984, the church was commissioned by the Presbytery of San Francisco as "Noe Valley Ministry Presbyterian Church." One year later, the Ministry's Session formally installed Carl as its first minister.

"Carl was a spiritual eclectic," recalls Suzanne. He incorporated Jewish rituals, Taizé chants, and meditation into his religious practices, and his interests included New Age spirituality and study of the Enneagram personality types. Early on, the Ministry was one of just two churches in the San Francisco Presbytery that opened its doors to the LGBT community to become a "More Light" church.

Carl retired from the Noe Valley Ministry in the fall of 1996 and moved to New York City the following year, where he had a co-op apartment in the Morningside Heights neighborhood. Among other activities, he taught yoga and meditation to seniors and was a tour guide at Riverside Church in Manhattan.

After battling leukemia for three years, Carl passed away on Dec. 6, 2008. He was 77 years old.

Carl's gifts were many, and they manifested themselves in the founding of the Ministry. He was recognized for his abilities to birth and build an urban church. He lived in the present, and was an effective organizer. He knew how to pull people together, give them a vision, and get them to march with him. Because of his influence, the Noe Valley Ministry became known as a place of welcome.

On Sunday, Aug. 9, 2 p.m., the Noe Valley Ministry will host a memorial service to commemorate the life and work of Carl Smith. The church is located at 1021 Sanchez Street near 23rd Street. To see photos of Carl Smith, log on to