The Rev. David Smith looked out at the rows of pews on a sunny, brisk Wednesday, four days before he was to deliver his last sermon from the tall, white pulpit of First Baptist Church in Lenoir.
As the sunlight burned through the stained-glass windows of the sanctuary, he remembered the faces and lives that have filed in and out of the rows of burgundy cushions in front of him.
“I see people in this room, people who have lived and died,” Smith said, looking out over the empty pews and balcony. “Sometimes I come into this room by myself and I see them, I remember them. It’s like marriage, it’s not one event that you remember, it’s the culmination of a lot of events: weddings, funerals, baptisms, baby dedications. I can remember people who came alive in Christ.”
Smith, 66, has been the pastor since Jan. 1, 1989, and has decided it’s time for the next chapter in his life, so he is retiring from the church and congregation he has led for a quarter century. First Baptist has had only two pastors in the last 50 years: Smith and Fred Barnes.
He earned his bachelor’s degree at Mars Hill College, went on to get his master's and doctorate from Wake Forest University, and performed missionary work in Costa Rica and Ecuador.
When he returned to the U.S., he said, he felt called to the ministry, and First Baptist “graciously took a chance with me.”
“When you first come to a church, it’s relating to the church members, after a while you’re relating to friends, and a little later in the journey they’re all family,” he said. “There’s a lot of growing on my part."
Among those who say Smith has had a profound impact during his tenure is Ron Stilwell, a Lenoir city councilman and a member of the church since 1972.
“David has been a real inspiration,” Stilwell said, citing Smith's work in local missions, helping get winter coats and heating fuel to those that need them, and being instrumental in starting the Dental Bus, which has served more than 1,200 patients who otherwise could not afford dential services.
“We’re never going to find anybody to replace him,” Stilwell said.
Smith also writes a daily prayer message via email that goes out to 1,928 recipients. It started as a month-long Lenten discipline, with just a handful of volunteers to get the messages. From there, it snowballed and became a daily devotional. He’s already compiled one book, "Always There: God’s Manna in the Morning," from the daily messages and is working on a second. He plans to keep sending the emails after he leaves the church.
After leaving First Baptist, Smith plans to “take some time to be still before God,” and spend some time with his family. His wife, Janice, a longtime Spanish teacher at Hibriten High School, will be retiring this year as well.
Smith also wants to spend time in nature, exploring the Mountains-to-Sea Trail starting in Boone and heading east. Smith hopes to one day walk the trail past his son’s home in New Bern, near the coast.
When asked what stands out about the last 25 years at First Baptist, Smith said it was the journey, “the sharing of the journey of a group of faithful people who have sought to live out their Christian faith in a positive way.”
Smith walks up to one particular window in the sanctuary, a little over halfway back on the Ashe Avenue side, saying in this window, something happened. A member of the church, a woman who lived to be 102 sat in the seat by this window for decades, Smith said. She died two days before Christmas, and because of services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at the church, her funeral was scheduled for Dec. 26.
The church held a candlelight service on Christmas Eve, but when Smith and his partner minister, Thomas Hinton, were cleaning and straightening up the sanctuary for the funeral two days later, the candle in that window by her seat was still burning.
“There was nobody in here, no reason,” Smith said. “If it had been left lighted, it would have burned out or burned the church down.”
But more people than her have left their mark on Smith, including Hinton, who Smith said “has been so important in what this church has been able to achieve and who we are.”
Anneal Ledbetter, 96, is another, a “prayer warrior that supported me and my family since the day we arrived,” Smith said. But not the least of which is his wife, Janice, Smith’s encourager and strength.
The rooms and hallways of First Baptist Lenoir are filled with memories and stories from Smith’s two and half decades, and as he moves on, they’ll stay with him.
"I just know it’s time,” he said.
On Sunday, a reception will be held at 7 p.m. in the sanctuary at First Baptist Church, 304 Main St. NW.