Volume 9 Number 6
Australia's Biker Priest
01 December 1996

Possibly Australia's most unconventional priest, John Smith is increasingly taking his message to his country's centres of power. He and his wife, Glena, talk to John Bond.

At the age of 54, John Smith has gone back to college, and is studying for a doctorate. At the party to send him off from Melbourne, his daughter said, `I've known you do many brave things, but this is the bravest.'

Smith is brave. Most of his 30 years as a church minister have been spent venturing in areas where few dare to tread.

Back in the Sixties he was employed by a Christian organization as a youth worker. In his busy round of school visits, he soon saw the immense influence of rock music on young people. So he started attending rock festivals. The leaders of his organization disapproved. In their view the festivals, with their `love-ins' and narcotic `trips', were no place for a minister. Smith argued that the festivals were precisely the place to present a radical Christian alternative. To no avail. He was sacked.

He and his wife Glena, however, were convinced that they were on the right track. So, though they had two young children and a third due, they launched out on their own. With like-minded friends they started a magazine, Truth and Liberation, to offer that Christian alternative. Before long they were producing 35,000 copies per issue.

The magazine spoke to many who felt alienated from the traditional churches, and people began to pour through the Smiths' home and improvized office. With their growing band of helpers, they found themselves grappling with drug dependency, homelessness and a host of other social problems. Often they felt overwhelmed. But through all the frustrations they learnt that unstinting care could transform many a person whom the welfare agencies had given up on.

Once a man came threatening suicide. He left with new hope. Soon he was back with a rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition. These he gave to Smith, saying that his plan had been to shoot as many people as possible before turning the rifle on himself. He went on to start a drug rehabilitation centre.

The Smiths' concern reaches beyond Australia. In 1989 they were asked to help in two situations of human rights abuse in the Philippines. John went to Mindanao, where a poor segment of a town was being bulldozed. Ever an advocate of direct action, he was soon attempting to disable a bulldozer. His arrest and threatened execution focused international attention on the town. Meanwhile Glena was on the turbulent island of Negros, where thousands of villagers had been forced from their land and several hundred threatened with execution. International concern helped create a permanent monitoring group to protect them.

Pioneering is a lonely business, with ample scope for mistakes, and John and Glena Smith have made their share. Their son was introduced to drugs by people they were working with; and they went through years of heart-breaking struggle with him before he succeeded in breaking free and refinding health and faith. He has now returned to his faith and healthy living. But neither of them doubt the path they chose. `We have learned so much from people who feel rejected,' says Glena. The struggles have given her a fiercely independent view; and though a strong support to John in all that he takes on, she can also be a sharp and perceptive critic.

Smith felt particularly drawn to the outlaw bikers - macho characters in tight-knit groups, who displayed their disillusionment with society by aggressive behaviour on powerful motorbikes. Underneath their bravado, he realized, were deep hurts and an emptiness which he longed to answer.

When he met some Christian bikers in Sydney, he saw his chance. They had formed their own club, God's Squad. Soon God's Squad was launched in Melbourne, with Smith as president. The Sydney chapter folded and Smith and his friends reshaped the concept to a wider yet more focused ministry.

Gradually God's Squad became an accepted part of the biker scene, and Smith and his mates made friends among the outlaw bikers. Today many bikers point to those friendships as the start of their discovering faith and a totally new lifestyle. Many have found faith at the margins of society.

Smith did not just work with the alienated. He felt called to young people of every background; and this took him regularly to schools. He enlisted God's Squad in this. Nothing was more likely to catch students' interest, he realized, than a roar of motorbikes up their school driveway, particularly when the riders could tell stories as colourful as their garb. In the past 25 years, Smith has spoken to over a million students.

This has established his reputation as the `biker priest'; and that is how most of Australia knows him. A hundred Australian radio stations carry his pithy one-minute talks, and he writes a regular newspaper column. His organization does extensive research into such issues as the youth suicide rate, which is exceptionally high in Australia. They hold `Values for Life' seminars in several hundred Australian secondary schools each year. Their work among young offenders has won the respect of welfare authorities, and a crime prevention award from the police.

None of this blinds Smith to the size of the need. Young people will only be adequately prepared for adult life, he believes, if there is a vast change in culture; and increasingly he is focusing on this issue. `We are not taking seriously the depth of disillusion in Western society,' he says. `We need to rediscover the values which underpin our society. We cannot go on putting the individual above the community, the material above the spiritual.'

These matters need to be the concern of governments, he believes, and he now visits the Australian Parliament in Canberra regularly. `Our politics of pragmatism and economic rationalism is dismantling a civil society,' he told a recent dinner of 20 Members of Parliament. `It is meaningless to focus on balancing the books while ignoring our social disasters such as divorce and drug dependency, which cost billions in welfare dollars.'

There were no quick solutions, he stressed, pleading with the MPs to encourage values training in schools. `Our present levels of divorce and promiscuity are destroying the family as a cohesive unit. Yet the family is a vital cultural safety net.' The dinner developed into a three-hour discussion.

When he encounters attitudes which he believes are destructive, he does not mince words. On one occasion, several MPs joked in a Parliamentary debate about their undergraduate experiments with marijuana. Smith was forthright. `You can get away with the occasional snifter,' he told a social policy committee meeting. `You have careers which give you a buzz. The people I work with do not. If they start down the marijuana path, many of them never stop. You are naive to treat this as a laughing matter when you know the media will take your remarks to the whole country.'

Again, a vigorous discussion ensued. Two hours later the chairman said, `This meeting has gone longer over time than any I can remember. I think it was because we were talking about matters close to our hearts which we rarely discuss.'

Now Smith is taking a doctorate in urban anthropology. This is giving him the chance to formulate ideas. But he is also doing it because he recognizes the importance that Western culture attaches to academic qualifications. He wants to give himself as good a chance as possible of being heeded in the media and policy-shaping circles.

That is brave. Recently a friend of Smith's asked the head of an American TV network, `Do you feel responsible for the influence of your video clip images on young people?' The executive replied, `Influence? We don't influence them; we own them.'

Not all media executives are that cynical. But Smith knows that any determined challenge to libertarian values in the media will encounter resistance. He is prepared to attempt it because, he says, `statistics show that libertarianism produces a high rate of addiction and dysfunction in young people - a rate as high as that produced by authoritarianism'.

And he does bring some important assets to the task. For 30 years he has swum against the tide. He has learned to articulate his views colourfully and compellingly, and to catch the attention of the media. He does not fit into any camp; and his focus on what needs to be done - rather than what he is doing - enables him to work with like-minded groups, even if the partnerships have their explosive moments.

Above all, his love for people keeps him going. If the struggle is waged, he believes, there could be a significant shift in culture, offering young people a better start in life. John and Glena Smith are determined to work for that.
John Bond


How about doing a follow up on this story. He has finished his doctorate and is still working hard.
God's Squad CMC
David Burrows, 13 March 2007

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