Standing in the right place

Interview with Rev. Bart Smith, Recipient of the 2022 Peaceseeker Award

June 2022

The Reverend Bart Smith (he/him) has had the joy and privilege of being the pastor of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, since March of 2015. Alongside St. Mark’s members and their community partners, he has engaged in ministries of social justice and community organizing– including border and immigraton issues, asylum-seeker hospitality, refugee resettlement, LGBTQIA+ inclusion, housing insecurity, urban poverty, and voting rights. Prior to being called to St. Mark’s Bart was a transitional pastor of congregations in Roanoke, Virginia. Bart has served the wider Presbyterian Church (USA) as moderator of the Synod of the Southwest, moderator of the Commission on Ministry of the Presbytery de Cristo, and as a commissioner to the 223rd General Assembly (2018), where he co-sponsored the resolution, “Stop the Separation of Families.” Bart is married to his partner in life and ministry, the Rev. Elizabeth Toland Smith, and claims Macon, Georgia, as his hometown. He’s a graduate of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and The University of Georgia.

PPF: What led you to get involved in a hunger strike for voting rights?

Bart: Here’s why I did it: too many people have struggled and died to secure the right to vote, and it’s too precious to let slip away now. Watching that right being shamelessly and systematically dismantled in recent years has disturbed me greatly. As a white person from Georgia and a student of history, I’m keenly aware of the great cost that our ancestors in the Civil Rights Movements paid for people to be able to vote. Those sacred rights are being stripped away by people who see their white-knuckled grip on American government and culture slipping away. States are getting pelted by voter suppression laws. These efforts impact all of us, but especially historically marginalized communities. 

Bart Smith

Here’s how I came to do it: in July of last year, organizers from the Arizona End the Filibuster Coalition, the African American Christian Clergy Coalition, Arizona Faith Network, the Poor People’s Campaign, and other movements invited Rev. Dr. William Barber II, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Barbara Arnwine with the Transformative Justice Coalition to lead a march to Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s Phoenix office to try to persuade her to act on federal voting rights legislation. Colleagues and friends of mine were participating, so I drove up to Phoenix. At the non-violent direct action training I felt a very strong nudge from the Spirit to join the “arrest track” for a sit-in at the Senator’s office since 1) the action was led by directly-impacted people and 2) part of a coordinated national strategy to end the filibuster, which I believe is a Jim Crow-era relic that blocks progress on some of the most pressing issues of our time.

At that action, I met the Rev. Stephen A. Green with Faith for Black Lives. In January of this year, Rev. Green put out the all-call to clergy to join in the Hunger Strike for Voting Rights in partnership with organizers with Un-Pac, a phenomenal group of college students. I saw his appeal on Instagram on a Wednesday night and was so compelled to stand with him (another Holy Spirit nudge… or whack, rather) that I actually lost sleep that night. I joined a Zoom call that next evening and thus began a 12-day journey with some of the most inspiring human beings I’ve ever met. My colleagues in that group, who are all African-American, were beyond generous and gracious to include me as a full partner in planning the events, doing media interviews, and rallying religious leaders to sign on to statements to urge Arizona’s United States Senators to support the Freedom to Vote and John Lewis Voting Rights Act. It culminated in an online Watch Night Vigil (due to snowy weather) on the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and a sit-in on the Capitol steps alongside activists with Black Voters Matter, DC-area clergy, and the Un-Pac activists the following Tuesday. While our efforts didn’t have the intended outcome of getting federal voting rights legislation passed, the whole experience, from start to finish, was truly prayer-filled and galvanizing for me. 

Participants in the Hunger Strike on the capitol steps in DC

PPF: The southwest, where you serve at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Tucson, is an interesting space where there’s Latinx culture and Indigenous culture that’s so vital and present, and there’s this right-wing grip on the state government. How does your work and citizenship in such a politically and culturally multifaceted part of the country manifest in your ministry?

Bart: What you’ve observed is true– here in the Borderlands the landscape is incredibly beautiful and we have such an interesting confluence of cultures. Yet against that backdrop, Arizona is “ground zero” for a lot of draconian policies, in everything from racist immigration laws to voter suppression rights to anti-trans bills. So while a lot of advocacy and community organizing work I do has a national scope, there’s a particularity to it because of Arizona’s role as a staging ground for absurd policies. And I’m really grateful to St. Mark’s. I served for a little more than seven years. It’s a social justice-seeking congregation, and as part of that call, I get to do a lot of really amazing, challenging work as a central part of my ministry. In the last few years we’ve done a lot of work as a church to look at our ministry through an antiracist lens, which is important because white supremacy keeps getting more sophisticated, with voter suppression especially. All that is to say that cultural humility is vital for people of faith doing  any justice work in the Borderlands. 

From left to right: Rev. Redeem Robison, Rev. Stephen Green, unidentified person, Rev. Bart Smith, and Rev. Dr. William Barber II in a march to Senator Sinema’s office in July 2021; credit Redeem Robinson.

PPF: What is happening now that will impact voting rights for the Nov 2022 elections?

Bart: It’s hard to know where to start. The forces of voter suppression have been playing a “long game” for generations but their efforts have really ramped up after the 2020 election. The former president’s “Big Lie” and other baseless accusations of election insecurity and voter fraud – which have been proven false time and time again – are trying to subvert democracy in several states. The Brennan Center for Justice does an outstanding job tracking these bills and their potential impact. Here’s a link to one of their articles detailing the stats from this year alone. Voting rights advocates are extremely concerned about this legislation. Here in Arizona, I’m also very worried about what I’m hearing about right wing efforts to intimidate people at the polls in communities of color. 

PPF: What role do you see the church having in the work for voting rights?

Bart: My short answer: please visit and explore the work that Faiths United to Save Democracy is doing. They have toolkits produced by a great coalition of advocates and activists for concrete things that people of faith, especially clergy, can do in their communities in 2022. I think that’s a great starting place, because heading into the November elections, this group is at the forefront of doing voter education and voter registration. The work of the Rev. Dr. Barbara Williams Skinner and others in that coalition is so solid and urgent, and I hope the church can stand with them in that. To quote their website: “As Christians and American citizens, we have an obligation and moral responsibility to participate in elections to ensure that policies at the local, state and national levels bring us closer to achieving our vision of a world where all people experience compassion, equality and justice.” Amen! 

My longer answer: the right to vote is a secular reflection of the spiritual truth, that all God’s children have a right to a voice in society and to weigh-in on the decisions that impact them. It goes without saying that our government is deeply dysfunctional and that democracy is under assault from voter suppression, dark money, corporate influence in politics, etc. American democracy is flawed but beautiful, and it’s what we’ve got. The church’s prophetic role in this moment is to honor the God-given dignity of our neighbors and the God-given diversity of our society by protecting the right to vote. As Presbyterians, our theology and polity emphasizes the importance of just, inclusive, and transparent decision-making processes– not just in church, but in the wider society as well.

And, frankly, there’s really going to be a need for a faith presence at the polls in November. I don’t want to be alarmist, but voter intimidation, especially in communities of color, is alive and well, and with November being a really crucial midterm election, it’s time for people of faith to really be present. Rev. Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner has organized clergy to work with lawyers in the past to be present at the polls. They did that during the 2020 election. I think that need will continue.

PPF: What have you learned in your activism for voting rights as a peacemaker? Where do you see God in the struggle for voting rights?

Rev. Bart Smith, Rev. Stephen Green, and Rev. Anne Ellsworth at a sit-in in front of Senator Sinema’s office in July 2021; copyright Fuerte Arts Movement

I have learned that following Jesus sometimes means getting into what the late Congressman John Lewis famously called “Good Trouble.”  Please hear me say that I am not an activist by personality, inclination, or training; I simply have been fortunate enough to meet some wonderful people who have convinced me, through their example, to have the courage and faith to do the next right thing, to take one more step toward justice. A quote by Father Greg Boyle from Tattoos on the Heart has stuck with me: “The strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place—with the outcast and those relegated to the margins.” I think he’s partially right in that I believe Jesus has a lot to teach us about kinship, therefore allyship or follower-ship by extension. I have to keep asking myself, who am I standing with and whose lead am I following? It’s deepening or refining what it means to love our neighbor. I’ve missed opportunities to do that in more ways that I can count, so I only pray that God will help me see how I can more fully and authentically stand in the right places. And in this moment that place means standing with people who are fighting to safeguard the right to vote. 

PPF: And finally: what are you hopeful for? What do you want to see manifest for citizens and for people of faith?

I hope for better voter turnout. That may sound simple, but there’s such a concerted effort to make sure that low-wealth people, people of color, and other marginalized communities’ votes count less, and that tilts the balance of power in our government’s catastrophic directions. And I do recognize, as a person of faith, that the ultimate transformation we need in society, isn’t going to come through established institutions. The real, lasting power isn’t in DC. But too many people have struggled and bled for the right to vote. It is too precious. And those forces of voter suppression know that they are losing power, and one of the ways we can remind them that the power is with the people is to vote, and to help others get out to vote. To exercise that power and to exercise it to the fullest extent that we can.