John Smith (1942 – 2019)
A Tribute from God’s Squad CMC
Kevin John Smith, Smithy, The Reverend Doctor, Bullfrog, John, The General. Our commander in chief, our founder, our president and for nearly five decades, our teacher. He was an academic, a pastor, a preacher, a prophetic voice, an irritant to a comfortable church, an advocate for justice, the poor, the marginalised and the arts. A music lover, bookworm and biker, and more significantly, John was a husband, father, grandpa, brother and uncle.
He could be both complex, and incredibly direct. Andy Turner, writing on behalf of Greenbelt Festival in the UK, comments, John could be “… an impossible, absurd mix of contradictions. Intense, chaotic, tactless, driven, at times heavy handed. Curious, compassionate, tender, broken. And brilliant.” Any amount of time in John’s company, and the conversation could cover a multitude of topics in just a few minutes. It could be poetry, theology, matters of justice, the natural world, politics, music, literature and history, all with immense authority and enthusiasm. He could be a bloke’s bloke one minute and a hopeless romantic the next, shedding a tear at the drop of a hat. He had the capacity to be so brutally honest about the finer details of his own body falling apart, it could make your skin crawl and then the next moment, he could be talking about the history of mission movements in central America.
But Smithy was also a biker who covered hundreds of thousands of miles. It was with God’s Squad Christian Motorcycle Club, he hit the road throughout Australia and many other countries as well, as the club grew in Europe, New Zealand and also the USA. For Smithy, the road was the place of discipleship and mission, and like John Wesley, one of his mission inspirations, the world very much became his parish. It was where you worked out what it meant to be a follower of his hero, Jesus of Nazareth. The road would take you to the marginalized, and he taught us that the Gospel still ought to be good news for the poor and uncomfortable news for the powerful. He remained passionate about the need for the message of Jesus, to be faithfully proclaimed in the public sphere, but he also taught us that it should be something that should be lived – putting it into practice was not an optional extra.
He taught us how the bible was not a book to pull ‘proof texts’ from, to justify personal gain. Neither should we conveniently skip over the hard to read passages, like loving your enemies and doing good to those who persecute you. He introduced us to new travelling companions in the scriptures such as Jeremiah and his laments, the counter cultural prophetic voices of Amos and Micah, which saw him at his most animated, in full flight preaching on a festival stage. He highlighted the frailty of King David, and introduced us to the blues songs in the Psalms that pointed to the hope of the gospel. The road trips of Jesus connecting with outcasts and undesirables saw him even in failing health, burst with enthusiasm at the all-embracing love of God, that was at work long before we would ride into town. And he never lost his enthusiasm for the apostle Paul’s ability to cross borders and be a cultural chameleon, which he himself did so well. John was able to connect with people in a myriad of contexts – whether it be in a smoky motorcycle clubhouse bar, backstage at a rock and roll gig, in the corridors of political power, a chapel pulpit, a street corner talking to a complete stranger, sitting amid indigenous communities, engaging in academic dialogue, or crying in the pouring rain at a graveside with a grieving family.
Whilst he would often rage against the weaknesses of the church, he passionately believed in the need for Christian community, genuine fellowship, brotherhood and sisterhood together. If ‘you couldn’t cope with the organized church, then be part of a disorganized one’, but don’t go it alone. He taught us that we need each other, in all our shapes and sizes. God’s Squad reflects this rich diversity still today, and remains something of a miracle that it functions at all. Such is the broad cross section of personalities, stories, Christian experience, denominational preference and psychological make up. On paper it shouldn’t work, but it does, precariously balancing between complete dysfunction and bordering on brilliance. God’s Squad remains a unique testimony to a unique pioneer in counter cultural mission.
John was able to nurture God’s Squad chapters globally alongside his international speaking schedule. When Smithy was in town, it wasn’t a matter of flash hotels and first-class travels. He mucked in with our local communities, living with us, travelling with us. Smithy coming to stay would always be a bizarre experience though. You didn’t just get John, his colours and his bible. You got a plethora of excess baggage, boxes of books, at least half a dozen broadsheet newspapers blowing down the street in the wind, a new gadget that he’d bought and couldn’t get to work. You got something broken that needed fixing, (usually either himself, his glasses or his laptop), and before you knew it, your fridge would be full of specialist local beers and your sink full of empty bottles, as he soaked the labels off for his collection. And a hat. There would always be a hat, and it would always be left somewhere and need to be found. In the middle of this, there would be clubhouse visits, pastoral visits, speaking engagements, media appointments, all whilst being jet lagged and in recent years, increasing amounts of pain. It could be an exhausting experience, but somehow we would all look forward to it and every chapter would move mountains to accommodate the brilliance and the chaos that was John Smith, and you savoured these moments.
But it wasn’t always straight forward. There have been huge disappointments along the way, with some conflicts and loose ends. He would have loved to have seen a wide network of grassroots church communities connected with this ministry. There are some – but maybe the greater gift and legacy has been the significant number of God’s Squad members, in ministry across a broad sweep of mainstream denominations and welfare sectors, committed to a counter cultural gospel that believes things don’t have to stay the way they are. Over the years there’s been some fractures, and the struggle of leadership transition has been very real and challenging at times. But Smithy, our brother, our visionary, our voice crying in the wilderness, leaves a legacy that spurs us on passionately for the long haul, in sacrificial obedience in service of our Lord. It is a legacy that finds its core values in the Kingdom of God and in the Sermon on the Mount. It speaks into our character, our relationships, our lifestyle and our collective ministry together, and will not surrender in the face of ridicule, oppression and our own fragility.
It also needs to be said publically, that as a community people, God’s Squad CMC sends our deepest love and the assurance of our ongoing support and prayers to John’s wife Glena, their children and their families. Over the years, they have endured many sacrifices for the cause of this ministry, but they have also endured times of pain and heartache, because of our own collective dysfunction. Sometimes there has been a reluctance for us as a community to acknowledge our flaws, and we realise there has been a price that you, and others, should not have had to pay, and we regret that with tears, and a resolute commitment that this must change. John died sleeping in the arms of his bride of over fifty years, who has stood by him, through thick and thin, lived through the dramas of this most unique of ministries and remarkable of lives. As we honour John, we also honour Glena.
We are sad, but we are grateful. We are grateful for a life shared on the road that brought us closer to the heart of Jesus, and a belief that ordinary broken people can make a difference. We are hopeful, because of the assurance of our faith in this same Jesus, that John is now enjoying his ‘beautiful day’, where the Kingdom has finally come, where the colours are bleeding into one, and there are no more questions, no more doubts, and no more pain.
Thank you for your support, and to our friends in the motorcycle club scene globally, thank you to each one of you that gave a welcome to John. He treasured all these times and took none for granted. For nearly 47 years he wore the colours of God’s Squad CMC, he brought a depth to their meaning, that we shall endeavor to retain as we continue the journey.
Still On The Road …..
On the occasion of the Melbourne Chapter’s 25th Anniversary in 1997, John wrote the following, and it still applies today:
“…our faith and commitment remain stronger than ever. You need a faith to live by and a friend to stand by. Like Jesus, who we follow, we are committed friends of the outcasts of this world. We are friends, not to manipulate our mates to faith – but because we talk and live a faith that is free for all. True love is no weak sentiment – for Christ it led to crucifixion.
To all our mates on the bike scene, … we are a club that exists not for ourselves, but for non-members. If you ever need an honest believing friend, we are here for you and so is Christ.
Cheers and God be with you”
John Smith, GSCMC
John’s Funeral Service will be on Saturday 23 March at 2pm, at the The Wave, Ocean Grove Baptist Church, Cnr Wallington Rd & Lake Ave, Ocean Grove, VIC 3226. All are welcome to attend.
If you wish to send a message to John’s family by way of a tribute, we will be pleased to pass them on via the following email address: