Remembering John Smith

Friend and regular to the festival in the 1980s and 90s, Ozzie theologian and activist John Smith has died. 

In the early 70s John ditched the Methodist minister suit and tie, grew his hair and a beard, switching to boots, leather and skins, embracing the outlaw bike scene. The rest is history. In 1972 ‘God’s Squad’ was established. As the beard grew, the leathers scuffed and outlaw bikers defected to Gods Squad, so the club established its reputation across Australia as a legitimate ‘outlaw’ gang. John embraced the rituals of the outlaw biker with a compassion and commitment, that helped grow the Squad’s credibility. Alongside friendships with outsiders John co-founded churches, organisations and social welfare programmes, penetrating Aussie media long after interest in the Squad had moved on. John brought a distinctive comment on social, cultural and ethical issues, challenging his audience to find meaning beyond consumption and materialism. 

If you made it to Greenbelt in the late 80s and early 90’s you’d have struggled to miss John. He first spoke at Greenbelt in 1986, the year of Hurricane Charlie, attending the festival with his beloved family and close friends, the Maddocks. It was John’s blend of intellect, passion and a fearless oratory that helped grow a loyal UK following – that, along with the cassette tape. I first heard about Smithy from a biker in a Stockport tower block in ‘87 who gave me a tape of his ’86 Greenbelt talks as we sipped sherry. It was a revelation. John returned to Greenbelt in ‘87 to launch his autobiography. The book and his Greenbelt talks became best-sellers. For a time U2’s Bono and Edge adopted Smithy as unofficial chaplain, and his followers grew. 

John was unusual – a genuine, old school polymath. A walk round the neighbourhood and he introduced varieties of grass, types of eucalyptus, the hidden or ignored revealed and celebrated. Ten minutes with Smith and you might cover protons and particle physics, Hamlet, Tolstoy, Lady Gaga, alongside youth homelessness, or marine conservation. Which is maybe why a generation of Greenbelt audiences loved him. His empathy with artists and passion for, and knowledge of art was infectious. John referred to art as ‘the nerve ends of the soul’ coupling his commitment to artists alongside a rage against injustice, racism, treatment of indigenous people, inequality. Though he inspired many in truth John was complex – an impossible, absurd mix of contradictions. Intense, chaotic, tactless, driven, at times heavy handed. Curious, compassionate, tender, broken. And brilliant. 

His final Greenbelt was in 2007. Track #RIP John Smith on your social media and you’ll see a legacy in tributes from performers, artists, musicians, medics, teachers, social-workers and activists. Many who trace their vocation back to Smithy and an encounter at Greenbelt. It says it all. People who joined John and ditched one life for something else all-together.

Written for the Greenbelt blog 11 March 2019.