The Rev. Dr. Ozzie Smith, Jr. recently retired after serving 24 years as the Senior Pastor of Covenant United Church of Christ in South Holland, Illinois. On Sunday, September 6, Dr. Ozzie preached his final sermon, “This Is It,” as Covenant’s Senior Pastor and now holds the well-deserved title of Pastor Emeritus. In this sermonic message, his focus was on Romans 13:8, which speaks about loving one another with God-love, agape love. Dr. Ozzie is a lover of people, a scholar, theologian, musician, activist, and much more, which is why the Chicago Defender honored him in their salute to pastors in 2008. He is described by Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. as an ordained minister of the Gospel and a seminary professor who combines his incredible gifts of southern baked wisdom, soulfully marinated music, and Holy Spirit-filled preaching. We take a look at his life of ministry and service over the past 24 years and offer a glimpse of the man many have called pastor, professor, brother, dad, granddad, and friend.
From Memphis to Chicago
Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. Ozzie was a member of the East Trigg Baptist Church in Memphis before moving his membership to Olivet Baptist Church following his marriage to his beloved wife, Barbara Westbrook Smith. The late Rev. Kenneth Whalum, the father of renowned jazz saxophonist, Kirk Whalum, was the pastor at Olivet. Kirk wanted to learn the saxophone and credits Dr. Ozzie with mentoring and encouraging him. Today, he is one of the most sought-after musicians of our time.
Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., Pastor Emeritus of Trinity United Church of Christ, met Dr. Ozzie when he was scheduled to preach at Olivet Baptist Church. He shared how he noticed Dr. Ozzie and his wife, Barbara, working together – she as the minister of music, and Dr. Ozzie as her assistant. He reflects that “God showed me that Ozzie was more than an Assistant Minister of Music. Ozzie was a butterfly trapped in a cocoon called Memphis, struggling inwardly to break free and be what God was calling him to be. God nudged me. God said, Ask them. Invite them, and I promise you I will use them to bless thousands exceedingly, abundantly above all you —or they— could ever ask, imagine or think. I promise you! I followed God’s nudging, invited the Smiths to Chicago to be on our staff at Trinity UCC while earning his seminary degrees at McCormick, and today, Covenant UCC stands as a witness that God never makes a promise that God does not keep!”
In 1990, Dr. Ozzie and his family packed their bags and moved to Chicago and immediately joined Trinity United Church of Christ. He began working at Trinity as a student assistant and served alongside his wife, Barbara, as the youth choir’s adult leaders. He was later named Trinity’s Associate Pastor of Music. Dr. Ozzie Smith shared that Dr. Wright wanted him to preach, but before he could preach, he needed to attend seminary and receive his Master of Divinity. He attended McCormick Theological Seminary and received his Master of Divinity. He preached his first sermon at Trinity UCC in April of 1993, and at his ordination 26 years ago, he recalled these words from Dr. Wright: Stay focused on Jesus; stay faithful to the Cross, and be thankful in all things – count it all joy! Dr. Ozzie Smith shared that these words have carried him up to this day.
A Call to Pastor – It’s Your Time
Three years after graduating from seminary, Dr. Ozzie Smith shared that he received a call from the United Church of Christ about a new church start in south suburban South Holland, Illinois. Although he interviewed for the position, he didn’t want to pastor a church – even attempted to flub the interview, but was called to pastor the church with zero members. In 1996, the same year he completed his doctoral studies at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, Covenant UCC was started, and the Smiths – all 5 of them – Dr. Ozzie and Barbara, and their children Lauran, Ozzie III, and Bryan, became its first members. On the first Sunday of worship, Dr. Ozzie, as the pastor of Covenant UCC, he preached his first sermon, “When Jesus Shows Up,” before a packed sanctuary and 27 people walked the aisle and joined the church. He reflects on the words of his friend, Rev. Paul Sadler, who said to him that day, “I don’t want you to get disappointed, next Sunday will not look like this – it will be 32 members and no crowd.” Dr. Ozzie replied, “And he was right!” And yet, today, because of his leadership, love, and loyalty towards God and God’s people, Covenant UCC is one of the largest congregations and the fastest-growing congregation in the United Church of Christ, with over 4,300 members and over 35 ministries supporting its members.
Love for God and Music
While in Memphis, Dr. Ozzie Smith was a musician, having played saxophone for such greats as the Temptations, The Dells, Freda Payne, and many more. He was also a member of various music groups, including a combo at Langston University, and served as the recruiting leg of Langston University Productions, Unlimited. Yet, his love for the music was sung by vocalists that struck him in his saxophone playing ministry. Dr. Ozzie shared that he gravitated to songs with lyrics; thus, it was important for him to know the lyrics of the songs he played. He recalls one Sunday; he ministered the song, “Peace Be Still.” After church, he shared that an elderly woman came up to him and said, “Young man, I heard a lot of learnin’ in that playing but not a lot of burnin’ in that playing.”
Anyone who has been in Dr. Ozzie Smith’s presence knows that he travels with his beloved saxophone, and before he preaches a word, he preaches a word through his musical instrument. God has given him a gift, and he plays his instrument as gratitude for God’s faithfulness and love. He explains that “worship is not a performance; it is not personal if it is a performance. Playing to the Lord is a whole another matter – from the heart. I read in Downbeat magazine – musicians who play songs that have been sung – get acquainted with the lyrics – they don’t just play the melody, they play the words, and then something happens. This comes from a relationship with the Lord.”
The Legacy Continues.
The Covenant family and Dr. Ozzie Smith’s children and grandchildren honored their beloved pastor, father, and grandfather for his 24 years of service, presenting Dr. Ozzie with various gifts, video messages, and songs of gratitude. As Covenant’s Senior Pastor, Rev. Dr. Patrick Daymond, explains, “It’s one thing when you consider the impact of Rev. Ozzie’s pastoral ministry in the Chicagoland area for the last 24 plus years. It’s another thing when you know the kind of man he is – high integrity, deep authenticity, and overflowing love. I watched as he did all that he could to care for his late wife, Barbara, in her battle against Multiple Myeloma. I watched as he picked up the pieces and continued to serve the people and the community with joy and enthusiasm. It’s no surprise that he’s been a great pastor all of these years because Rev. Ozzie is simply a great person. And that is what I seek to model.
Because of his love, kindness, thoughtfulness, and awesome ministry, the members of Covenant UCC renamed the Youth Church Worship Services building the Ozzie E. Smith, Jr. Youth Center. They will also be developing the “Garden of Oz,” a community garden that will raise fruits and vegetables symbolic of the life-giving harvest that his ministry has ushered in over the past 24 years.
Dr. Ozzie’s final words of reflection come from the liberation theologian, Howard Thurman, “I’ll be finished in a minute, but I’m not through…” Enjoy your retirement, Rev. Dr. Ozzie Smith, Jr. And to his family, Lauran, Ozzie III, Bryan, Jequeatta, Westbrook, and Aulden…count it all joy!
Donna Hammond is a freelance writer and seminarian living in Chicago, Illinois. Follow on Twitter: @DeeLois623. Follow on Facebook: DeeLois Speaks