by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — God’s man was in the house, and he came to turn on the power.
“It is the custom here at Our Lady & St. Rose to hold hands with our brothers and sisters, get their name — their first name, if you don’t know their name,” said Father Chester Smith, SVD.
“At this time, I want to ask that you just close your eyes for a few seconds to pray for that brother and sister whose hand you hold beside you in silence,” he said.
It was a powerful moment, one of many during the revival March 12-14 led by Father Chester on successive days at Christ the King Church, Blessed Sacrament Church, and Our Lady & St. Rose Church, all in Kansas City, Kansas.
It was no wonder that the final night of the revival had a spirit of warmth and familiarity.
Father Chester — and occasionally his twin Father Charles Smith, also a Divine Word Missionary priest — have led revivals at Our Lady & St. Rose almost yearly now for over 20 years.
Chicago-born and raised, Father Chester, now based in Indianapolis, is part of the Bowman Francis Ministry. As a missionary, he is commissioned to minister and evangelize African-American youth and others. It is his work as a missionary that brought him to Our Lady & St. Rose, a historically African-American parish, on that final night.
“He remembers people — he remembers names and faces,” said Barbara Bailey, Our Lady & St. Rose pastoral associate. “If he doesn’t see someone, he asks about them, or says, ‘What about Vickie? What about Don?’”
Whenever he comes to town, certain people tell Bailey, “I need my time with him.”
“He’s so personable,” said parishioner Peggy Robinson. “One of us always has him off in a corner . . . for a personal one-on-one, and he always has time. It’s so easy to relate to him.”
Once, a couple was concerned that their sick relatives would be unable to come to the revival, so they offered to pick up Father Chester at the airport. On the way back, they took him by a Kansas City, Kansas, hospital so he could pray with and bless the relatives. The customary breakfast of waffles and sausage followed, of course.
Father Chester’s ministry extends out from his revivals like the spokes of a wheel.
“There are things that happen when he comes to Kansas City that he expects to do,” said Bailey. “He connects himself with us.”
In addition to visiting hospitals, he has visited schools — public and Catholic — as well as area jails.
“When I took him to talk to the young men at jail, they were really, really attentive because he is a black man and a priest. . . . In our area, we don’t see a lot of black men who are priests,” said Bailey. “We’re seeing more and more deacons, of course.”
“They had all kinds of questions for him,” she continued. “They couldn’t believe that he didn’t want to get married or have sex. They were just, ‘How do you do it?’”
Now, she continued, “it’s something that will always be planted in their minds — that, yes, there are black men who are priests. There aren’t just white Catholics; black people are Catholics, too! Maybe they don’t know that there are as many as there are.”
The theme for this year’s revival was “You’ve Been Framed” and the “Urgency of God’s Purpose.” Framed, not in a bad sense of an innocent person being “set up,” but rather in the sense that God has set boundaries in our lives.
“God has built a fence, a boundary, around your life,” said Father Chester. “Nothing can penetrate your frame that God does not allow. Did you hear that? Trouble may come into your life, but it cannot penetrate your frame. Sickness might come into your life, but it cannot penetrate your frame.”
“He always has a theme,” said Robinson. “And he centers each segment of the revival about that theme. I like that he always tells us to take out our ‘swords,’ our Bibles, and gives us readings to study at home for the next time or for the same day. And that really encourages me.”
“The readings relate to what he says,” continued Robinson. “And I like that he’s so down to earth and he injects a little humor into his talks. I get so much out of it that way.”
Father Chester’s message is always gentle and uplifting — and firm.
“I think parishioners respect him because of some of the things he says,” said parishioner Carole Kelley. “He hits the nail on the head. It hurts, but you can relate to what he says.”
Sometimes what he says elicits a loud “Ouch!” from someone in the pews. Call and response, a casual back-and-forth banter, are part of the African-American style of worship, explained Kelley.
Other parts of that heritage were evidenced at the revival by individuals stepping forward to give a “personal testimony” or for an “altar call,” which included the revival participants gathering around the altar for intercessory prayer.
“To me, the high point is the altar call,” said Kelley. “It is a very moving experience. It opens your mind and heart for very sincere prayer for your fellow man — for anyone who’s struggling with life issues as well as for yourself.”
After his Kansas City, Kansas, revival was concluded, Father Chester flew down to Jamaica. This was no vacation. He would substitute for an overworked parish priest who otherwise would not have some time off.
Jamaica was just one more stop on a circuit that will inevitably bring Father Chester back to his home base in Indianapolis — and next Lent to his other home: Kansas City, Kansas.
Thank you Leaven for capturing this wonderful moment in time. Especially meaningful since Father Chester is no longer with us. Its comforting to relive the interaction with him and us. The comments by parishioners are uplifting