The Rev. Dr. Paul Smith was a college student in 1957 when he first met a young Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and this Sunday he'll preach from the Canterbury Pulpit at the Cathedral, where Dr. King preached his last Sunday sermon, in 1968.

Photo of the Rev. Dr. Paul Smith

Smith is a veteran of the civil rights movement and has recently teamed up with the Cathedral to launch a new program to train a diverse cohort of civic leaders in racial justice and reconciliation, alongside our Canon Missioner, the Rev. Canon Leonard L. Hamlin, Sr.

Leslie Scanlon of The Presbyterian Outlook profiled Smith in one of her final dispatches for the publication:

Now retired, Smith helps lead a new initiative at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.: A program to train leaders across lines of division, funded by a $491,000 grant from Trinity Church Wall Street.

That initiative grew out of the kind of interfaith, boundary-crossing, public theology work that has been at the center of Smith’s ministry. Ordained as a minister in what’s now the United Church of Christ, Smith has long served Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations. Hildi Hendrickson, the author of his biography Building Beloved Communities: The Life and Work of Rev. Dr. Paul Smith, is a Buddhist academic. National Cathedral, where Smith and his wife, Fran, became involved after his retirement, is an Episcopal congregation. And Leonard L. Hamlin Sr., canon missioner at National Cathedral and Smith’s collaborator in the new project, is a Baptist minister overseeing the cathedral’s outreach and social justice work.

Hamlin said that when he and Smith met a few years ago, they began to discuss “how we might be able to remove some of the walls that really divide us” in this nation.

Their idea: to bring together leaders who work on systemic racism in their own communities, but who come from different contexts; a diverse group in terms of socioeconomics, gender, race, age and geography. Those leaders – a cohort of about 25 people who will come together for intense in-person sessions at the cathedral – likely will include faith leaders, entrepreneurs, first responders and people who work in business, government and public advocacy.

The intent, Hamlin said, is “to bring together leaders from around the country who would not have an opportunity to meet, to discuss challenging issues” and to build relationships across their differences. Each will bring an issue of a particular concern in their context — a case study to present to the group. They will be encouraged to speak honestly, to not hold back.

The hope is to build relationships over the days together and to hear views from people they might not otherwise encounter or get to know, Hamlin said. “We know how much it’s needed right now,” he said. “We believe that inside sacred space there are conversations that can be encouraged,” and that this diverse group can build trust and work together to begin to bring new answers back to their home communities.

The organizers want the participants “to unleash all the things that are on their minds, without being judged,” Smith said. “A conversation can be held, and hopefully some kind of change is made,” emerging from a cross-cultural conversation that is rare today.

You can catch Smith in the Cathedral’s pulpit on Sunday (Jan. 15) at 11:15 a.m. by joining us online here.


Kevin Eckstrom

Chief Public Affairs Officer