J. Morris Smith 1938-2021
When speaking of Dr. J. Morris Smith, those whose lives he touched always seem to find the word “compassionate” entering into their memories of him.
Jim Foran first met Smith before he was ordained as a deacon for the Scranton Diocese, a position he held from 1993 to 2020, serving most recently at St. Joseph the Worker Parish.
“Our lives intertwined for several years, and we both ended up together at St. Joseph the Worker for several years,” Foran said.
“I always admired Morris. His gentleness and knowledge and compassion to different folks,” Foran said.
Smith, who passed away Sept. 15, also served as Shepherd of the Streets for 20 years.
“I know that’s challenging work, and every day you’re dealing with some kind of crisis or another. He left his mark on the community dealing with a lot of the most vulnerable folks in our community. He had great counseling skills, and also at the parish, he was noted for many things but especially for his scripture study — his knowledge of the scriptures,” Foran said, adding that Smith had led a Bible study for several years.
A student of the Bible, Smith “passed on his knowledge to the bigger community,” Foran said.
Smith was the founder, along with his wife of 62 years, Barby, of DOULOS-Servants of the King, an ecumenical crisis and formation house at Ralston. He also served as its director.
Even at Shepherd of the Streets, his couplings skills were called upon at different times, Foran said.
Foran recalled the times that Smith was supportive of families dealing with the death of a family member, helping with funeral services for marginalized folks.
On a personal level, Foran described Smith as understanding and witty at times.
“He had a sharp sense of humor there. We had lots of memories of events and celebrations and dinners and ups and downs,” Foran said.
Ann McDermott, who served as secretary at St. Joseph the Worker and is now retired, worked with Smith for 25 years. She remembered Smith as a “wonderful human being.”
“He just took the time to help anybody who needed help,” McDermott said. “I knew that when they asked him to be Shepherd of the Streets that he would the best shepherd that he could be. He was such a giving person. He would give you the shirt off his back.”
“He was compassionate, but firm,” she said of his work as Shepherd of the Streets. “He did it gracefully. He did it without making you feel bad.”
Gwen Bernstine, who recently retired as director of United Churches of Lycoming County, shared her personal remembrances of working with Smith for over 29 years.
“His ability to really relate to his clients when he was shepherd. He would seek to really understand their positions. The other (thing) I really appreciated about Morris is was that he would look at how his clients related to other people in our society, and if they weren’t understanding his client, he would help them to do that,” Bernstine said.
“He had this amazing way of helping other people to be compassionate. But it was more than that; it was helping them to understand,” she added.
The primary focus of work at Shepherd of the Streets involves helping people with medical concerns.
Bernstine cited examples such as helping a doctor in dealing with a client that didn’t have health insurance see that they couldn’t afford high-priced medicines. Or if there was someone who couldn’t read not speaking to them in what she termed “medical speak,” or helping the people he worked with understand instructions from physicians.
His empathy extended to all people that he worked with, no matter what their backgrounds.
“It was often more apparent with his clients, but he got us to think about that more,” Bernstine said. “He got us to pay attention to who we were talking to, not just talking at.”
She said that she felt Smith spent his “life working hard to see the image of God in each person.”
“He wanted to see the image of God in everyone — adult, child — in his parish, in his community,” she said.
“It was always about seeing the true person that God had made,” Bernstine added. “He just valued everyone’s walk and journey. He always wanted the best for each person.”
She shared that his ministry in Texas had included working with Hispanic field workers and in the barrios of San Antonio.
“He was an aficionado of Mexican food,” Bernstine said. “He could tell where the real Mexican food was here,” she added with a laugh.
“He made the best beef brisket you ever had,” McDermott said.
“You can take the boy out Texas, but you can’t take Texas out of the boy. He was a true Texan,” McDermott said of Smith, who was a native of Texas.
“He and Barby were the most hospitable people,” McDermott added.
Bernstine shared that Smith stayed close to his family and was fond of announcing any time a new grandchild was born.
“He was a very relational connected person on all different levels,” Bernstine said.
For his work with the underserved, Smith received the St. Vincent Humanitarian Award, the YWCA Racial Justice Award and the Pickelner Brotherhood Citation.