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Three Questions with Rev. Dr. Paul Smith

Rev. Dr. Paul Smith is pastor emeritus of the First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn. Dr. Smith created models of multicultural worship and interfaith collaboration at churches in Buffalo, St. Louis, Atlanta, and New York City. Dr. Smith has worked to foster a world of inclusiveness, diversity, peace, and justice.

What is the one thing our society can do to improve end-of-life care for all of us?

In my ministry I am guided by a poem by James Weldon Johnson, A Funeral Sermon (Go Down Death).

For a long time and maybe even now, it is the most profound written statement on the black community’s understanding of imagedeath. As a child, my great grandmother had a picture depicting that poem. I now have it in my study. It’s an image of death coming down into the slave quarters, a hut. A white chariot. Inside the hut is Sister Caroline, who is tired, and God is calling her home. Outside of the hut is Sister Caroline’s family. Sister Caroline has a smile on her face because the chariot is coming that only she can see.

In death, yes, God calls us to come home. But that’s between you and God. Nobody else. No other living person can see the chariot coming. When a dying person is letting you know how they want to be cared for at the end of life, the dying person is telling you what to do in a situation that you cannot fully see.

How will we meet death? Will we say that we want to be free from suffering and pain? Will we want to spend our remaining time on earth away from a hospital, living at home and with friends and loved ones? Then that decision is between God and the dying person. That decision does not belong to the people outside the hut.

How would it improve end-of-life care?

A person’s spiritual leader can help them develop a path at the end of life. We need leadership in our congregations.

Compassion & Choices can assist in developing this type of leadership and dialogue between pastors. As people who are nearing death look for guidance, their pastor will play an important role. I’m here to remind my fellow clergy members that only God can call the dying person home. We aren’t involved in that conversation. When a person’s time comes and they want to talk about death, we can only guide and support. We can help people choose a path. Death will come down. We can choose how we meet it.

How would this idea to improve end-of-life care benefit people?

The community puts its trust in its pastors. With that trust, we can reach more people, particularly in the black community, who have been turned away from the medical system. One of my friends, Revered Ron Christian, led an 8,000-person church in Irvington, New Jersey. Ron understood death better than anyone should. He was surrounded by death. His church was in a very rough neighborhood. He had Bloods and Crips in his congregation who would hand over their bandannas because they knew Ron has walked some of the same roads they have. Ron had the conversation with hundreds of his parishioners. We need more Ron Christians as pastors.