Featuring Rev. Robert E. Smith III's " MY STORY"
Rev. Robert Emmett Smith III
I was born in 1952 in West Point, Georgia in the American South, just across from Lanett, Alabama, the town where I would grow up.
I’m the son of Clifford and Helen Smith and the brother of Betty. My family attended First Christian Church, one of the member churches in a small Protestant denomination known as the Christian Church, (Disciples of Christ).
It was in First Christian Church that I came forward at age eleven to confess Christ and be baptized into church membership. At age 18, in my first year at a junior college near my home, I had a deeper conversion experience that gave me a deeper understanding of my faith. I felt called by God to be in the pastoral ministry of the church. A door to the ministry opened for me when the President of the Christian College of Georgia in Athens, Georgia gave me a chance to live at his school.
For the next three years (1971-1974) while I studied for my degree in Religion at the University of Georgia in Athens I was able through the Christian College to preach at various country churches and to have two youth ministries. I was blessed to have as my roommate my friend Gary from my hometown. At the Christian college dormitory we lived among a number of foreign students: Indian, Pakistani, Chinese and one student from Kenya. I helped a South Vietnamese army officer with his English and I learned of his country’s struggle to remain free from Communist tyranny. Hien had three little girls and a lovely wife in Saigon, and I remember his anguish during the North Vietnamese spring offensive in 1972. Saigon fell three years later and my sorrow was personal.
Upon graduation from college in August 1974 I packed my 1967 Ford Galaxy and left my parents’ home in Alabama to head for Lexington, Kentucky, to a Christian Church seminary where I would earn my Master of Divinity Degree. It was there I met Jim Smith, who became like a brother to me, although not related. Jim was from a state next door to Kentucky, West Virginia, the state where I would later live and meet my wife Mila.
During these college and seminary years I was struggling with two spiritual problems. First was the assault on my more conservative biblical beliefs by more liberal professors so that the faith I was left with came after much testing. The second problem was my realization of how sadly human people in the churches could be, as well as my own failings and shortcomings.
During the years following seminary I held jobs other than pastoral ministry. I worked as a nurses’ aide in two states and as a houseparent in a Christian children’s home. It was this latter job that brought me to West Virginia in 1983 where I’ve remained ever since. Working with elderly nursing home patients and juvenile delinquents gave me experiences I never would have had if I had only been in the pastoral ministry.
The big turn in my life came when I took a pastorate in Grafton, West Virginia in 1988. The job ended badly four years later when I was fired from my position at the church. In addition, I was diagnosed with a serious liver problem after coming to Grafton that required the care of specialists. Despite those traumatic events and to some degree even because of them, Grafton was the greatest positive turning point in my life, because it gave me the wife, the family and the home I never had.
I thought at the time I was diagnosed that I probably wouldn’t live long and that marriage and family might be a lost dream.
Then Mila and her four daughters came to Grafton from the Philippines after her husband’s death from cancer. I first met Betsy, Mila’s oldest daughter at the restaurant where she worked. My heart went out to her, having lost her father and moved to a strange new land all in a matter of months. When I finally met Mila, my first words to her were, “You must be Betsy’s mom.” When I visited Mila’s little house for the first time, I met her other three daughters including seven-year-old Tina, whom I would later help raise like my own daughter.
After a long friendship that turned into romance, Mila and I were wed at St. Augustine Church on April 20, 1996, with father JJ Jesena conducting the ceremony. Our marriage is a blending of two races, two cultures, two faiths (Catholic and Protestant) and two helping professions (nurse and pastor).
In the Jubilee year 2000, Mila and I flew to the Philippines -- Mila’s homecoming after eleven years. While spending three weeks visiting family and friends, we found time to visit places that were a reminder of the cost of freedom and the preciousness of life.
Our flight from America landed at the Manila airport where Benigno Aquino was martyred. We visited another place of martyrdom, Fort Santiago, where Jose Rizal, the Philippine National Hero, spent his last night. We saw the statue to the People’s Revolution at Camp Aquinaldo and the American Military Cemetery, where 17,000 U.S. servicemen are buried.
And through Father JJ Jesena’s services we actually got to spend precious time with that living symbol of Filipino freedom, President Corazon Aquino. During all this time I was given many chances to minister in prayer with Father JJ to people in need.
One of the great ironies in our life together is our association, beginning in 2003, with the same U.S. Army that liberated Mila’s family in 1945. Mila’s youngest daughter, Tina, met a young cadet at the West Point Military Academy’s ball. He and Tina were married after he had served a year in Iraq. Tina and Mike now have two daughters. The older daughter, Jacqueline, was born at Ft. Benning, Georgia in early 2007. Mila and I have been to three army bases and two West Point graduations, and met countless young men and women dedicated to preserving freedom.
When we visit Mila’s three older daughters in New Jersey and New York City and see the good lives they and their husbands and children have, we are reminded of the sacrifices which made it all possible. One of these sacrifices was Mila’s decision to leave family, friends and home to come to America in order to give her children a better life. Another sacrifice is the one our son-in-law Mike made in choosing a life in the U.S. Army over a life with less danger, more comfort and more financial reward. Mila and I are proud of him and of Tina for sharing that life with him. Last year, we went back to West Point Military Academy, this time for the graduation of my sister Betty’s son, Luke.
Being family to Father “Juni” Jesena through my marriage to his sister Mila has taught me many things about how precious life is and how precious freedom is, and how both are the gift of a loving God. For example:
In the early 1940’s Mila only survived as a small baby by not crying out as Japanese soldiers rummaged through the kitchen of her parents’ home just one floor beneath her hiding place.
In the early 1980’s Father JJ took a stand along with other clergy against a president who had become a dictator. A hit-and-run on the streets of Manila almost killed Fr. JJ. An ordinary man who decided to be a Good Samaritan was instrumental in saving his life.
On September 11, 2001, Mila’s daughter Emgee, almost lost her life when planes flown by Muslim terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers in New York City. But she, her mother, and her uncle all survived the threats to their lives by people who hate freedom and want to impose tyranny.
Mila lived to go to nursing school in Bacolod, and to give nursing care in America to many of the veterans of World War II who helped liberate her country. She was able to marry and raise four beautiful daughters. Father JJ lived to inspire thousands with his sermons and books and to minister at universities around the Philippines. Emgee survived to marry a fine young man a month after 9/11 and raise two daughters.
As you might imagine, being married to Mila has brought about profound changes in my life. All of a sudden I had an international family with relatives in Canada and the Philippines, and I was able to travel with Mila to both places -- my first trips ever outside the United States. I was able to experience fatherhood with Tina, first as a father-figure, then as a step-father.
I’ve been able to experience the joys that a grandfather gets to have with Carlo, Hannah, Sophia, and Jacqueline. Mila’s passion for picture-taking has left us with many photographic memories of those precious moments.
Our family is like a small version of the United Nations – Scots-Irish, Italian, Filipino, Indian, and African American. Meeting with Mila’s nursing classmates has taken us to Los Angeles, Chicago, Florida and of course to Bacolod and Iloilo in the Philippines. Mila and I talk often to our best friends on the phone – her friend Edna in Los Angeles, California and my friend from West Virginia Jim Smith, who pastors a church near Charleston.
Of course the most profound change in my life has come from my relationship with Mila herself. As a pastor I tried to live to serve Jesus Christ and the people of the churches I served, yet in my own private life I only had to consider my own needs and wants. All that changed at age 44 when Mila and I were married with Father JJ officiating at St. Augustine Church in Grafton. Most of the time I seem to do the loving thing as a husband, but often I’ve hurt Mila with a thoughtless word or action or in some cases, failing to act when I should. I’ve discovered the blessings of being married to a woman who isn’t reluctant to forgive me once I’ve apologized.
Mila and I have had to work many things out in blending our lives together. I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of Roman Catholic worship as I regularly take Mila for Saturday night anticipated Mass. Mila often accompanies me to the Protestant churches where I speak. One of my churches thought so highly of Mila they even asked her to teach church school.
Early in our relationship I took Mila and Tina to Alabama to meet my parents. For my Mom and Dad, it was love at first sight. My father died of a brain tumor the next year, but my mother lived to attend our wedding in West Virginia in the spring of 1996. She was thrilled to have Mila as her daughter-in-law and was able to spend ten days at our home around Thanksgiving, 1997. She died the following spring, and Mila and Tina were with me at the funeral in Alabama. Mila is proud and thrilled to have a number of my mom’s oil paintings hanging on our walls.
Mila and I have supported each other through sicknesses, surgeries, the theft of our car in New York City, job losses, difficulties with relatives and other life problems. One of the things that melted my heart toward Mila was her love for me and desire to be with me, even though I had a potentially fatal disease. Recently, I had a gall bladder removed and Mila’s love and nursing of me during my recovery made such a difference from the years when I was single.
Of course, many of the experiences that have bonded us together have been positive ones -- the weddings of the four girls and a niece and nephew, the birth of grandchildren, holidays with the girls and their families. Mila and I have traveled many miles on our nation’s highways either talking or in silence or listening to music in the car’s CD player. On one memorable trip we went to New Jersey long enough to see Emgee and her new baby daughter Sophia and then drove in two days down to Fort Benning, Georgia to see Tina and her new baby daughter, Jacqueline.
Mila and I have two shared experiences that very few American husbands have with their wives. The first was when I taught Mila to drive a car. One of the proudest days of my life was when Mila passed her driving test and got her West Virginia driver’s license. Another proud day was when Mila and her daughter Emgee raised their right hands to take an oath to become citizens of the United States. I got to share that experience with them on my birthday, July 14, 1995 at the Federal Courthouse in Elkins, West Virginia. I was proud of Mila for scoring 100% on her written citizenship test.
Years ago when Tina was still a little girl, I was driving her and her mom back from a trip to visit my parents in Alabama. It was night, and we were on the West Virginia Turnpike in the big mountains of southern West Virginia. As we passed a lighted area I looked lovingly at the sleeping faces of my two girls. It was one of those moments when I realized what Mila had brought to my life -- the need to protect and care for and provide for someone you love. It was up to me to get my girls home safe and to stand between them and any trouble that might come.
Mila and I live a quiet life in our little town in the West Virginia hills. Mila’s sister Pat and her husband Sam live a mile away. About a mile in the opposite direction is the final resting place of Mila’s father, Arsenio Tingson Jesena, Jr. We visit him often, then come back to our house on the hillside, shaded by evergreen and hardwood trees, blooming in spring and summer with the flowers Mila loves to plant. It’s a quiet, peaceful place, a place to reflect on the journey we’ve made and the sacrifices and love along the way, and most of all, the goodness and love of God that allowed us to arrive here.