The Rev. Laureen Smith says when she tells people she’s a minister, her statement is most often met with a look of surprise.
Dressed in slightly cropped black pants, with a short, layered hairstyle and a toe ring, Smith, who is an associate pastor at Western Presbyterian Church and head of the Protestant Campus Ministry at GW, doesn’t fit most people’s image of the typical church leader.
I don’t mind shaking up stereotypes, she says while tucking a piece of hair behind her pierced ear. I can be faithful and still be myself.
Smith became Protestant campus minister at the end of the 1990 school year. Five years later, she also began working for Western Presbyterian, where she gives sermons and serves the church community. Before coming to GW, Smith held a position at a battered woman’s shelter.
Despite growing up in a religious household, Smith says she always thought she was destined for a life on the stage, not behind the pulpit.
As a theater major at the University of California at Los Angeles, she says her rock-gut knowledge of her life plan shifted. She admits she entered Harvard Divinity School and the ministry kicking and screaming but compelled by a higher calling.
I was really mad because I didn’t want to be a minister – I thought God had made a mistake, she says, waving her hands around wildly and attempting to fit as many words as possible in one breath. I kept saying `I’m not nice enough, I’m not understanding enough.’ When I was growing up, I was always the one getting my mouth washed out with soap.
But for many students on campus who have interacted with her, God made no mistake calling her to the ministry.
She’s one of my favorite people in the world, says Jason Anthony, who graduated from GW last year and now works in the Student Activities Center. She has served as a mentor, good friend, confidante and a surrogate mother to me here at GW.
Smith says she once heard that campus ministry is like feeding lunch to a parade, because ministers have to work with all different types of people and serve in so many different capacities. On any day, Smith may counsel students about many different issues, including sexual assault, choice of major, relationships with parents or religious issues, she says.
Smith helps different groups on campus to sponsor events, such as Program Board’s Religion Week, the Last Lecture Series and alternative spring break trips. Smith also serves on the Board of Chaplains and has worked as an adjunct professor in the Women’s Studies and Human Services departments. Speaking in hyper-drive, she says she often reminds herself to remain calm by looking at her computer screen. The screen-saver says, Breathe.
It’s clear I’m on this journey, and I don’t have all the answers, she says, leaning back on her rocking chair. I just want to support students and encourage them to take their voice very seriously. We’re all in this journey together.
This is such a fragile little planet, and we’re each so awesome and miniscule at the same time.
But her strong rapport with students and her unconventional appearance are not the only things that make Smith stand out. In a field traditionally dominated by men, Smith says she is one of the women who is working to crash through the glass ceiling and make her way up the tall steeples of churches nationwide.
I’m a feminist, she says matter-of-factly. God calls both men and women to the ministry, and he wants us all to realize our fullest potential. (If people think I’m too liberal) that’s their label on me – that’s not my label on myself.
Father Jim Greenfield of the Newman Center says the only label he can apply to Smith is leader.
I couldn’t think of a better role model, he says. With her leading the way and setting the pace, the Christian churches are in good hands.
But while members of the Christian church and students are singing Smith’s praises, she can’t find enough words to describe her affection for the members of the GW community.
When asked what she’s learned from students, Smith slows down and takes a deep breath.
Gosh – there’s so much, she says, focusing her eyes on her red-lacquered toenails. I deeply value students’ willingness to be very honest with me. I have been so blessed by them. They’ve helped me grow on my spiritual journey.
As she begins to list the number of positive experiences she has shared with students, she shifts her speech back into high-speed acceleration. She jumps up and runs across her office, grabs a photo and then plops herself down in her rocking chair again. Leaning her head closer, she proudly displays the picture taken of her with a camel on the Quad at a recent Hillel-sponsored Israel Day event.
I was so psyched to get my picture taken, she says, her bright hazel eyes sparkling. Life is so fun sometimes – how good can it get?