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Lunch with Mimi: UBBC Pastor Bonnie Kline Smeltzer

on November 02, 2017 3:38 PM

Bonnie Kline Smeltzer is the pastor at State College’s University Baptist & Brethren Church. Joining UBBC in the fall of 2002, she prepares the weekly service and sermons, provides pastoral care, and works with a variety of programs and activities for the congregation. Her husband, Ken, is an ordained minister and owns his own handyman business in State College.  

Originally from Dundalk, Maryland, she was the first in her family to graduate from college. She earned a bachelor of arts degree in social work from Elizabethtown College in 1976, and a master of divinity from Bethany Theological Seminary in 1981. Prior to coming to State College, she was a pastor with her husband in Modesto, California, for 16 years.  

Ken and Bonnie Kline Smeltzer lost their daughter Elizabeth to addiction in 2014, when she died of a heroin overdose. As difficult as the tragedy was, the Smeltzers decided to be open about the problem of addiction and share their story to raise awareness. In addition, they were advocates for treatment and a reduced sentence for the young man who sold the drugs to their daughter and was with her when she died.

Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Bonnie Kline Smeltzer at The Tavern Restaurant to discuss addiction as a disease, how the community can come together to help find a solution, and what roles faith plays in our daily lives regardless of religious beliefs.

Mimi: Well, Bonnie I've had the pleasure of being good friends with lots of people that are in your congregation. I got a little taste of spirit at your church in terms of its difference from the old, traditional way of doing it. I can't help but think of my Sunday experience before this interview. I was invited to attend services at a place of worship for the African-American community and I came away so inspired with the spirit of their prayer. There was a culture in that congregation that was captivating because it's so expressive both in word, song, and physical feeling. How does it happen there and it doesn't happen in most places that I'm familiar with?

Bonnie: Well, it's interesting in worship; there are differences in expression according to racial and ethnic backgrounds. Years ago, I attended the World Council of Churches’ 6th Assembly in 1991 in Australia. One of the music people there was talking about how being Asian, it’s hard to lead a song from the Asian tradition after we've sung something from the Hispanic or African tradition because those are so lively and upbeat. People are physical and almost dance as they sing. He said that it's not that Asian music doesn't have the same intensity. It just goes inward. And so, I think there's a lot in communities of faith that differ depending on your area of the world and your tradition.
Mimi: I grew up in a home where I was told to stick to my own because I'm Jewish. My parents emigrated from Eastern Europe, so my early childhood was a very Jewish experience. It was quiet and pensive. It was so different. So, I come to this interview inspired about the things that people like you do, and I'm particularly interested in if you could talk a little bit about your journey as a woman in the service of congregation and some of the things you experienced particularly in this community and along the way.

Bonnie: Well, I grew up knowing that whatever vocation I had would be service-minded. And as a young teenager I thought I'd be a social worker. That's what I pursued in college. And then I realized I didn't know any women who were ministers, and churches certainly weren't ready to have women to be pastors. I had a couple of people along the way say that if you want to think about seminary, you ought to think about being a pastor, so those seeds were sown. And by the time I was almost finished with college I thought, well maybe I'll go to seminary for a theological education. I realized how much my life and values had been shaped by the church. And I thought being a pastor really is a tool in that process of helping people. Coming to State College in 2002, I am now serving my third church. When I was first in ministry, I was often the first woman pastor that anybody had ever met, but I don't get that anymore. Thirty years in ministry, it has changed.

Mimi: So, what's the most rewarding part of your commitment to this kind of service?

Bonnie: Pastors have entry into people's lives at some of the most joyous and most painful moments. And the privilege of being able to walk in to a person's life at either those times or anything in between is just something that you never tire of. It is a sacred opportunity and to me that's always felt like a privilege. I don't take it lightly. Being with the family as they watch someone die or coming in right after a death and helping them decide how to celebrate that person's life after death, as well as being there in joyous moments like after a baby is born.

Mimi: You're a living example of conquering in a positive way. You have one of the largest losses that a parent could have.

Bonnie: The death of our daughter, now obviously is one of the most painful things anybody has to face as a parent. And yet even in dealing with that grief and the ongoing grief of that, there have been opportunities to not let that death be in vain but let it provide some help to others. My daughter died from a heroin overdose. With the opioid epidemic, there are a growing number of parents who have lost children. I'm a bit further along than some parents and I can share my experience and help parents along that road.

Mimi: What can the rest of us do? That's a terrible problem.

Bonnie: It begins with understanding that addiction is a disease. We need to get rid of the stigma against drug addiction and work at all levels to increase funding for education. I'm working on my legislators whenever I see opportunities to encourage them to increase funding for recovery and rehab facilities because there just aren't enough. All of our nonprofits are struggling for funds. And you know that that's one of the beauties of this community, it is one of the things I noticed right away moving here, 15 years ago, was that it is a service-minded community.

Mimi: Is there an organization locally concerned about this problem or is it still spread out?

Bonnie: There are several different organizations and I don’t know how much they work together.

Mimi: Maybe it should start within the organization of leaders of places of worship.

Bonnie: I hadn’t thought about that.

Mimi: It seems to me, well at least in my own faith, that there are more people who don't belong to the congregation than do. Is there a decline in the spirit of praying? Do you sense that the ministry is having trouble or growing?

Bonnie: I think all churches are experiencing a decline in formal religion and expressions of religion. We're in an era where whether you're a Christian, Muslim, or a Jew, the way we used to practice faith and the institutional practices are no longer reliable, that it's in decline. In the Christian church we talk about denominationalism being dead, that it's dying and yet there is this spiritual hunger for all people of faith. I noticed after election week, we suddenly had a rise in church attendance. It was like people who were dissatisfied with the election were coming back to church because they were looking for something. We’re on the edge of this real spiritual hunger. People are looking for purpose in their life. People are realizing there's emptiness with climbing the success ladder and getting all the material things.

Mimi: How do we grasp the value of praying together? Perhaps our traditional churches and synagogues are too much same old, same old.

Bonnie: I think people pray, not just with eyes closed and hands clasped. People are learning different kinds of prayer through meditation and yoga. People are seeking out spiritual direction. People are looking for companions to help teach them how to pray and deal with the tough questions of life and faith.

Mimi: Do you work with the mental health community?

Bonnie: I have mental health professionals who refer people to my church. They sense that the people they're working with are not looking for black-and-white answers. They're looking for a community that knows how to welcome and care for people. There can be a community that's willing to deal with the tough issues of life. And my congregation is a welcoming community. We also welcome the LGBTQ community.

Mimi: And you probably get some condemnation because of that action.

Bonnie: We deal with it. But we're unapologetically open and welcoming. And at the same time, we pretty much let newcomers know that if you're looking for answers, you probably won't find them in our community. We're a community that wrestles with a lot of questions and we don't always have answers, but we're willing to be companions along that journey. Life isn't black and white, it's all shades. If you want a community that gives you black-and-white answers, this is not it. We really think serving one another, the community, and the world is the key to practicing your faith, having good health and well-being.

Mimi: In a climate in which we're living today, places of worship have a greater challenge to grow and survive. Does a woman make a difference in the quality of the worship within the congregation?

Bonnie: I think women in ministry have some unique insights that they can bring to the worship experience that male counterparts don't.

Mimi: I think it has benefitted the synagogue too because we represent better than 50 percent of the population and a small percentage of the leadership in this case.

Bonnie: We had a rabbi at our denominational conference and she's famous. She's written a lot of children's books. She is just so delightful in the way she approaches scripture, looked at stories and asked questions that were so different than what you might have been taught in seminary by male professors because she had a woman's experience so she could approach scripture differently. The same way when we have a mix of ethnic folks in ministry who have been oppressed. They look at scripture differently and can help the eyes of the privileged gain new insight.

Mimi: Well, I always find it interesting that generally speaking, most people refer to God in a masculine way. And I always get a laugh when I say “thank God, wherever she is.” Just because you know it stops people saying he.

Bonnie: Start right out in Genesis and say we're created in God's image, male and female, and God created them.

Mimi: Why do we see or imagine God to be like a living person?

Bonnie: Personified God. I think it's our own need to be able to make God more relatable. It's our need to tame God. The best way to do that is to think of God as a human being, like someone watching over us. I mean that's the beauty of the Jewish tradition, you don't say the name for God because God is so unfathomable, untamable, and we cannot contain God. There's such mystery. I think people want to make God into a being that they can relate to easily.

Mimi: My religion, I believe, the part I respect the most is the traditions of religion. Is that true universally?

Bonnie: I'm not sure I could say that. I grew up in the Church of the Brethren, which is a small denomination and there are traditions for foot washing. Jesus was washing his disciples’ feet at the last supper. So, we wash feet too, but you know for a lot of people that's just way too intimate or too weird.

Mimi: You've been here 15 years; have you had a most unusual experience?

Bonnie: Yeah. I came to this congregation at a point where it was in the life cycle of a large number of elderly people. And so, I've had a lot of it, helping families deal with death and dying. When one is at death's door, they're caught between whatever is in this realm of life and what comes after. And in the Christian tradition people say I am going to be with God but I think there is this period where dying people are caught between now and what happens after death. And I have had some fascinating conversations with dying people.

Mimi: Any wisdom to pass on to living people?

Bonnie: Oh absolutely. One person told me that there's nothing to be afraid of about death. It's beautiful and most of us spend all of our lives being afraid of death when there's nothing to fear. And this person also said that everything is connected. We're all connected in some way, and that was a powerful revelation and very comforting. To know on this side of death that we need not fear is a comforting thing that we can walk towards death without fear. And just recently I had an experience with a person who was seeing loved ones on the other side and talking to them and it felt like the loved one was there with them.

Mimi: I want to send you away from this interview with the challenge of how our community can take a look at this whole addiction issue that is taking too many young people and ruining too many lives. Maybe Happy Valley could gather some people together that would at least talk about the potential because it's very important.

Bonnie: Yeah, and it's happening across all the divides, so maybe finding a solution would be a bridge across some of those divides.

Mimi: People have to talk about it to be able to figure it out. And we have this great institution across the street and a community of people who care.

Bonnie: Bright minds and kind hearts.

Mimi: When you think about all of the social services that happen here, in spite of the cost. This would be a great project for leaders in this community to pick up and try to set an example of working together to solve this problem. Thank you for taking the time and for making me feel a little mellow.

Bonnie: My pleasure. Thank you. Glad to do it.


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