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Missionary’s commitment leads inner-city lives to Christ

EDITORS’ NOTE: The Week of Prayer for North American Missions, part of the 2005 North American Missions Emphasis, is being observed in many Southern Baptist churches March 6-13. Baptist Press will present profiles on the featured missionaries, now through March 15th. For more information on the emphasis, visit www.AnnieArmstrong.com.

PORTLAND, Ore. (BP)–Churches are built on relationships, and few people in the Pacific Northwest are better at cultivating friends and building relationships than missionary Troy Smith.

A soft-spoken Mississippian by birth, Smith has become a master of understanding the human condition and how people develop lifestyles that are destructive to themselves and those they love. Smith steps into those quagmires of defeatism characterized by drug, alcohol and other dependencies with a Bible in hand and a tried-and-proven approach to spiritual rehabilitation through Christ.

Smith and his wife, Jamae, are among nearly 5,200 missionaries in the United States and Canada supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. They are featured during the March 6-13 Week of Prayer and North American Mission Study, which this year is themed “Answer His Call.”

Smith first came to Oregon as a church starter in 1978 after discussing his call with the director of missions for Interstate Baptist Association. He was told the association had a piece of property with “no people, no congregation, no salary, but with a $55,000 debt.”

“I knew that’s where God wanted me to go, even though I tried to talk Him out of it for a while,” Smith recounted. “But within a week my wife and I resigned our church and moved to Portland, and I knew I was home. I was where God wanted me to be.”

Smith served as founding pastor of Jackson Baptist Church for five years until he became an evangelist from 1983-85. That’s when things began to happen that reshaped his ministry.

Although his life was fulfilling, he was challenged by Portland’s growing population of men and women who were looking for fulfillment through destructive behavior. It was a people group largely ignored by churches because they didn’t know how to respond -– a people group composed of many who lived in the inner city and who had become addicted to drugs and alcohol.

Smith became increasingly concerned that churches were moving out of the inner city almost as fast as others were moving in. He was disheartened by the spiritual void being created by the slow exodus of the very salt and light that should have found new opportunities for ministry.

“I felt we should go to those people rather than abandoning them as I saw more and more churches move to the suburbs,” he said. “Many of those churches left simply because they didn’t know how to deal with the problems of the inner city.”

Smith tried to help the association recruit a pastor to work with those individuals but no one stepped forward.

When he was told it was virtually impossible to start a church in downtown Portland that would become self-sustaining, he again prayed about it but couldn’t shake the conviction that it was where God was leading him.

“I wanted to start a church that was more than a rescue mission. Many told me that it would never be self-supporting, but I felt God knew better; I just had to find the way He wanted it to be done.”

Smith had left the suburban church to enter evangelism fulltime but took a detour from that ministry to join the Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) as a missionary to the inner city. He was not guaranteed an appointment beyond three years, he said, “because no one lasted that long in the inner city.”

Smith opened the Baptist Revival Center in downtown Portland for counseling and worship services. He walked the streets, listening to stories of wasted lives and sharing the Gospel with the city’s rejected residents. It was the first good news many had heard in a long time.

That’s when he recognized a pattern.

“Genuine commitments to Christ go sour when addicts aren’t offered help with their drug problems. I found that my static answers –- ‘I can’t help you but God can’ -– were not good enough, not practical enough. There was death everywhere I turned in working with these people.

“That’s when I began to look for something, some way to help these people, because I knew that if I was going to operate in the inner city that I was going to have to find the answers or I was going to have to leave.”

Leaving was not an option for Smith.

“We found that while there were many who were genuinely open to the Gospel, keeping them away from their old lifestyle was really difficult. Many became Christians but didn’t stay committed and quickly slipped back into their old lifestyles.”

The problem was there was no Christian approach to dealing with substance abuse. Smith and a co-worker won more than a hundred individuals to Christ but many took their own lives out of desperation.

Smith began questioning why God had sent him to a place of such desolation. He felt a strong call, he said, but wanted to leave -– just like the other churches before him.

He looked to Alcoholics Anonymous and discovered even its success rate was only 3 percent finding rehabilitation; a local hospital claimed 5 percent. No one was able to offer lasting solutions.

Then while taking a break in the prayer garden at the LifeWay Glorieta Conference Center in New Mexico where he was attending a conference, God gave him an answer –- and what has become a tried-and-proven solution to substance abuse.

“I keep asking myself if those who I led to Christ were really saved, why did they keep slipping back into their old lifestyles? Then God gave me the objectives which became the foundation of what is now known as SAFE -– Setting Addicts Free Eternally.

“Lazarus was one example God opened my eyes to that afternoon. There he was fresh from the tomb, walking around with new life -– but he was still wrapped up in his stinky, smelly grave clothes.

“He couldn’t eat, walk or run. He smelled and looked like death, and his grave clothes constantly reminded him of his former state of existence. That’s when God showed me that I needed to get new Christians in the inner city out of their grave clothes.

“I told God that I didn’t know how, and He told me I needed to start looking at solving their root problems,” Smith said.

The goal of SAFE is not sobriety, Smith is quick to point out. The goal is for each person who completes the course to become a productive, healthy, child of God.

“If you sober up a thief, you still have a thief. But if you change him from the inside, you no longer have a thief,” he said.

Smith’s program is built on the importance of building and maintaining healthy friendships and relationships. When individuals understand the value of developing new friends and changing their thought processes through Scripture memorization and Bible study, they become changed from the inside out.

“What we’re trying to do is recondition their minds through Scripture saturation. This is not a baptized 12-step program; it’s a totally different approach that is bringing about changed lives on a much higher level than other approaches.”

His approach includes providing a house where recovering addicts live and pay rent while providing each other with spiritual and emotional support. Businesses in the city have embraced the program by providing clients with employment because of their proven work ethic.

His three-year appointment has now turned into 19 years, and he can still be found changing lives in downtown Portland. The SAFE program has become so successful that Smith regularly travels across the nation to share the concepts with church and community-based ministries. It has been translated into Spanish and even found success in the Ukraine.

He quickly admits he could not do it without his wife’s help.

“Jamae helps teach the national seminars as well as serves as a primary teacher on the Tuesday evening programs when we work with our clients.

“Anyone who has ever sat in one of our conferences will tell you she’s the best instructor they could have. She communicates the program on a level that anyone could understand,” Smith said.

Smith credits the success of the program to its Christ-centered approach. There are many programs like the 12-step approaches which address a higher power that can be any power imaginable.

“I was determined to build a program that wouldn’t work if you took Christ out of it,” he said.

And the power of Christ continues to change lives and amaze the critics in the process.

“In John 8 it says, ‘If the Son shall set you free, you shall be free indeed.’ You cannot believe there’s freedom in Christ and that you are always going to be an addict. You can’t believe both of those, you have to choose one or the other. And for me, I chose to believe the Bible, that there is freedom in Christ. He has the power to set you free from all of your addictions.

“There’s no quick fix to this kind of problem … it’s a reconditioning of the subconscious mind,” Smith said. “When they come here they’re drug addicts or alcoholics. But when they leave here, they’re children of God, ready to serve, worship, and honor Him.”
Church and community ministries, part of the North American Mission Board’s ministry evangelism team, shares Christ through ministry-based evangelism. Nearly 200 missionaries jointly appointed by NAMB and state conventions report more than 10,000 professions of faith each year. The unit provides resources to lead churches to be involved in ministry evangelism throughout their community. For more information, contact the individual responsible for ministry evangelism in your state convention office or NAMB’s ministry evangelism unit at (770) 410-6324.

    About the Author

  • Joe Westbury