Longtime Assemblies of God inner-city pastor and U.S. missionary Richard A. Smith continues to adapt to the times and the changing neighborhood of Philadelphia, where he has ministered for four decades. African Americans are no longer the dominant ethnic group in the Frankford section, which has seen a growing number of Hispanics and Turks settle there in recent years.
Smith is pastor of Faith Assembly of God in the northeast part of the City of Brotherly Love. These days, the neighborhood is nicknamed “Needletown” because of the prevalent number of heroin users.
“People are literally bent over up and down the street, about to fall over and die,” says the deep-voiced Smith, 66. The epidemic grew so severe that Smith took lessons on how to administer naloxone, which, when injected, can restore normal breathing to an overdosed opioid user. This year, Smith saved the lives of three individuals who toppled in front of the church, and kept them alive until paramedics arrived.
“The Bible says the poor you will have always, but that’s not referring just to finances,” Smith says. “It is the poor in spirit, which has nothing to do with money, but everything to do with the sin problem — where their poverty is.”
Smith, a U.S. missionary with Intercultural Ministries, notes that drug abuse knows no ethnic nor class distinctions.
“Children of privilege are dying,” Smith says.
Helping drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, and the homeless has been an everyday reality for Smith in rough parts of Philadelphia, even while still a student at the University of Valley Forge.
The church operates a federal afterschool feeding program, although COVID-19 restrictions mean recipients now must pick up groceries at the church and carry them home to cook. Up to 200 people a day do so, taking boxfuls of edibles that will last for three days. Because of its role in the Child and Adult Food Care Program, Faith Assembly has invested in purchasing a 40-foot refrigerated tractor-trailer truck, 10 freezers, a forklift, and storage units for canned goods and rice.
In the not-so-distant past, Faith Assembly experienced outdoor lighting vandalism, broken windows, and a stolen sound system. But Smith says such destruction is largely over because residents, even unsavory ones, understand the church has compassion on the poor.
Smith has long had a heart for the downtrodden, starting an organization called Hope 4 Philly, a cooperative effort among inner-city churches to minister to residents in need of food, clothing, and transportation assistance. As the organization formed in conjunction with a Convoy of Hope outreach 10 years ago, John and Gayle Brzozowski, who pastor the nondenominational River of Life Philadelphia, met Smith. The warm and generous pastor immediately impressed the couple.
Gayle Brzozowski, even though she is 13 years older than Smith, asked him to mentor her.
“I asked if he could be my spiritual father and that is exactly what he has become,” she says. “There is nothing he wouldn’t do for us.”
Brzozowski says Smith helped the couple organize their church in the equally economically challenged northeast Philadelphia Kensington neighborhood after they moved there from New Jersey. She says Smith showed her and her husband — who are both white — how to relate to the Hispanic and African American attendees who became part of their congregation.
And most of all, Brzozowski says, Smith aided their 12-year-old granddaughter — who stayed with them that summer — to overcome her struggle with family issues. Smith prayed with the girl at the annual Faith Assembly tent crusade.
“She told me, Ever since he prayed for me I’ve forgiven my father,” Brzozowski recalls. “He’s really had an impact on our lives. He’s gone out of the way to help us and he does a lot of things for the community.”
Smith notes Brzozowski has returned the favor. In addition to visiting hospitalized Faith Assembly congregants, Brzozowski every week counts the church’s offering and takes the deposit to a bank.