Fr. Gary Smith holds baby Lilian in Adjumani, Uganda, during his work with Jesuit Refugee Service, an international organization that partners with the United Nations. The Jesuit priest spent about 15 years in Africa, where he witnessed violence and death punctuated with joy and life. “It was a time of much growth and reflection,” he says. (Courtesy Fr. Gary Smith)
Fr. Gary Smith holds baby Lilian in Adjumani, Uganda, during his work with Jesuit Refugee Service, an international organization that partners with the United Nations. The Jesuit priest spent about 15 years in Africa, where he witnessed violence and death punctuated with joy and life. “It was a time of much growth and reflection,” he says. (Courtesy Fr. Gary Smith)
He quotes Kierkegaard, T.S. Eliot and Dorothy Day and does not eschew a well-placed swear word.

But on this early summer afternoon the lanky 82-year-old priest is mostly quiet as he walks briskly along Northwest Davis Street in downtown Portland. He’s en route to an appointment and wants to squeeze in a visit with someone first.

“Ah, there he is,” says Jesuit Father Gary Smith, donning jeans and a baseball cap.

CJ Huzak, 43, sits on a bed of cardboard and tattered sleeping bags. There’s a patch of white in his beard, and an oversized jacket hangs loose on his small frame. Beside him is an empty pack of cigarettes.

“Father!” Huzak jumps up and the men embrace.

The two friends share a birthday, and for the past four years Father Smith has insisted they go out to lunch and celebrate. The priest wants to be sure to firm up this year’s plans.

A convert to Catholicism, Father Smith has spent nearly a half-century seeking out souls such as Huzak. He’s ministered to the abandoned and the suffering in seedy Portland hotel rooms, on the streets and inside prisons. He’s served within impoverished neighborhoods of Oakland, California, and amid refugee villages in Africa.

“The poor have broken me open and helped me to understand my heart,” he says. “The more people teach you to be yourself, the more you become open to love. And love — the song of hope for all humans — rests in God.”

A seed of belief

“In a sense, I was seized by some deep longings that led me to the faith,” says Father Smith.

He describes the day at age 19 when he found himself alone in a back pew of a Catholic church. As he watched people walk up and receive Communion, “I was so taken by it,” he recalls. “I was thinking to myself, ‘I need to be fed. I’m so damn hungry I can’t see straight.’”

By his late teens, the young Gary — smart, good-looking and a jock — had partied hard and “been around the block with women,” he says. “I was 20 going on 40 because I’d lived so much life. But I was pretty oblivious to the important things.”

He’d grown up in California’s Central Valley, a region known for its bountiful farmland and sweltering, dusty summers. His father died when he was young and his mother struggled with addiction, though “she was a wonderful woman,” he says.

It was in college, “amid a life of disorder,” that Gary was introduced to Catholicism by a friend.

“There was a deep movement of feeling and the search for order in me,” he says of his attraction to the faith.

Father Smith often draws from favorite authors to convey poignant or nuanced ideas. Attempting to articulate his conversion, he points to a passage from “My Bright Abyss,” an essay by Christian Wiman.

“It seemed as if the tiniest seed of belief had finally flowered in me,” writes Wiman, “or, more accurately, as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert and knew … that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief.”

‘Light for the church’

When Gary told his mother he was going to be a priest, she looked at her son, took a long drag on her Camel, and said, “What’s the deal with that?”

Father Smith smiles at the memory.

“For me it was, yes, I’m Catholic and embracing that, but one component was instinctively that I wanted to share that love I’d found with the world,” he says. Dorothy Day talks about feeling longed for by God. “I had that too, that sense that God really desired me.”

After converting to Catholicism at age 20, Gary had transferred from a state college to Santa Clara University, a Jesuit institution, “to get some theology.”

Drawn to the Jesuits’ intellectual rigor, work in education, and outreach to the poor and marginalized, Gary entered the order in 1959. He was ordained in 1971.

He’d go on to earn three master’s degrees, two in theology and one in psychology. But he gained clarity about his calling while still a student in Toronto, ministering to impoverished people and prisoners with drug and alcohol addictions. “That period helped me know I was meant to work with the poor,” he says.

As a young priest, Father Smith spent time with Jesuit community organizers in Oakland, California, where he helped shut down drug operations, address corruption in City Hall and fight to get vacant houses torn down. Many of the decrepit buildings were overrun by rats. He recalls how one woman was hospitalized for inhaling too much Raid.

In the early 1980s Father Smith was director of a drop-in center for the homeless in Tacoma, Washington. He arrived in Portland in 1992 to minister to residents of low-income hotels and in jails with mentally ill people.

“Paradoxically, the darkness of such places is light for the church,” he writes in his 2002 book, “Radical Compassion.”

It is there that the church is challenged “to claim what is best in itself: the ability to love compassionately, to serve unselfishly, to profess and speak what is truthful.”

Africa

In 2000, after about eight years in Portland, Father Smith felt the need to stretch in a different direction.

“It’s like in marriage or as a parent, where you are looking for where you need to grow,” he says. He applied to the Jesuit Refugee Service and within two weeks was assigned to northern Uganda.

“In Africa, my English didn’t work, my magnetic personality didn’t work, my good looks didn’t work,” he says with a grin. Two elders once told him: “The three little girls behind you, they feel sorry for you because your skin is so white, and your eyes are blue. ‘He looks hideous,’ they say, ‘and his hair — he’s like a chicken.’

“Humbling stuff,” Father Smith says and laughs.

He also experienced real suffering, enduring eight bouts of malaria, and witnessed violence and death. All was punctuated with joy and life. “It was a time of much growth and reflection,” he says. “I’m still amazed that I’ve seen so much of humanity.”

The priest served in camps with up to 30,000 Sudanese refugees displaced by South Sudan’s ongoing civil war and spent time in South Africa and Kenya. He was forced to evacuate South Sudan because of escalating violence, but not before seeing scores of bodies that had been macheted to death.

Prior to the evacuation, “I watched a 10-year-old girl rock and sing to her 3-month-old nephew,” he writes in a journal entry at the time. “She sang to that little guy for one-hour straight in a half-dozen languages. Here was the beauty of humanity, the stuff of the heart, being shared, given to one little baby.” Off in the distance was the sound of Kalashnikov automatic rifles. “Where is good in this world and where is evil and, in the end, who will win?” writes the priest. “I put my money on the heart of this little girl.”

‘It brightens’

Back in the United States for about two years, Father Smith now lives with the Jesuit community in Southeast Portland. Often rising at 4:30 a.m. to pray, he remains active in ministry and is at work on his fourth book, “on the inner life of the church,” he says.

Several days a week he lives and serves at Portland’s Blanchet House, which feeds hundreds of homeless people daily, and ministers at St. André Bessette Parish, a hub of outreach to the city’s poor. He also makes weekly visits through the Maybelle Center for Community, a nonprofit working to combat social isolation among low-income residents in downtown Portland.

One such resident is Frank Corrado, a 57-year-old with tattoo-covered arms, a knee brace and several missing teeth.

On a recent afternoon, Corrado stands at the entrance of an apartment building on West Burnside Street. He’s beaming as he greets the priest and friend Claire Foster, who attends Mass at St. André Bessette.

“Without this visit I would have no other socialization,” says Corrado, guiding his guests to a sparsely furnished visiting room. “Without them, the week would be like a fog. With them, it brightens.”

He first met Father Smith in the 1980s. “Back then I was addicted to anything and everything,” says Corrado, who spent years in and out of jail.

He looks over at the priest. “He tells me the hard things even when I don’t want to hear them. If I could pick my father, Father Gary would be the one.”

Beauty and awe

The way Father Smith lives “is marked by discernment,” observes Jesuit Father Scott Santarosa, provincial of the Jesuit West province. “He has an appreciation for the complexities of life and doesn’t see it in black and white but in terms of shades of gray. As he deals with individuals, he’s hearing their experience through the lens of discernment and not oversimplifying their life.”

Leslie Bentley is a Portland Catholic and friend of the priest who dishes up food alongside him every Tuesday at St. André Bessette.

“That he’s out in the streets serving people, holding them, loving them, and being an example of God’s love in his 80s — who does that?” ask Bentley. “He’s what mercy and compassion look like.”

Father Smith, who recovered from pancreatic cancer a decade ago, says he’s “a bit creakier” as he ages. Yet he remains eager to grow. “I’m grateful to whatever God sends my way,” he says. “I read somewhere that our history beats in us like a second heart. I look on my life and say, ‘How do I thank you, God?’ My prayer is really one of gratitude.

“I’ve just been giving this my best shot,” he adds. “The faith is still as beautiful and unbelievable to me now as when I first took Communion all those years ago.”