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.


Eating as a subversive activity | 2.

We host a weekly meal open to anyone. Attendance is ‘random’, which is tricky.

How many will appear? How many are we cooking for? How much should we prepare for? You don’t know. And that’s the point. There is no way around it. The meal deal is an act of faith, that people will show up and somehow, there will be enough food for everyone. Some weeks we’ll host 15 or 16… other weeks it will be more.

It isn’t simply the numbers – its also combinations of people that are outside control.

A mix of people emerge to welcome, talk to, catch up with. But how? And what about the dynamics? You’ll be aware of the dangers in a random blend of people. To help sometimes we’ve identified regulars – a core group of 2 or 3 people – who host, keeping an eye out for those on the edge of conversation, inadvertently excluded, the collective body language of the group leaving them out. Some times the whole group functions as host – this is best.

Some of the people we invite became friends. Some of the people invited – or who show up – have quirky behaviour. Others have difficult, challenging behaviour. This is critical. Eating as a subversive activity is not a meal with mates. The meal is partly about eating with strangers or strange people.

You may need to think through your own boundaries – whats acceptable and not. And safeguarding if you think its needed. There are complexities and paradoxes about hosting community work in a domestic space – your own home. You need to work these through.

We’ll invite all sorts – including the peculiar, perplexed, stressed or homeless. Occasionally the person you think, you really cannot invite. If they make it, if they show up, if they share food, if they are drawn into conversation the meal becomes subversive. You, me or others may be changed in some way by it.

In the vulnerability, insecurity and unease of an open table there is grace, development, growth – and fun.

We could talk about BP.

BP would shuffle in with plastic bags, eat for a week, then turn and talk at whoever he happened to be sat next to, spraying people with words for hours, without interruption or escape. People felt trapped, looking around for escape. Brian, who seemed oblivious to this, persisted, leaning in. This wasn’t babble – this was a coherent and knowledgeable monologue – from Greek mythology, ancient monuments, obscure world war 2 battles to Mahler, Wagner, the Labour party. It was also unrelenting. People tried to manage Brian by interrupting, shifting topics. However, BP new his stuff, made connections – and went with it. People tried moving. Getting up, shifting seats. BP would follow.

Brilliantly, some people took a lead with Brian, welcoming him and pursuing conversation – actively engaging and listening. Within a week or two, the whole group was compensating. It was like friendly tag wrestling, taking turns, welcoming Brian and sharing our responsibility too him across the group, watching out for each other, like a peculiar dance.

When BP died in October 2012 the eulogies from those at thE Meal clocked how much he had impacted on them. Irritating, difficult, offensive, yet people listened, persisted with him, asked him about his life and got to know him for who he was – this obstinate, fragile human. Babble from Brian turned in to conversation and then,  listening to one other, with Brian asking questions, tuning in to others around him.

So food becomes an opportunity for an encounter with someone different, a moment to share story and be listened too. For BP it was a moment of grace. “I’d wish I’d known about this before…”