New priest feels right at home at pulpit in the city


By Judith Wilmot

Reverend Jacob (Jake) Smith, the new Episcopal priest at Calvary/St. George’s Church, graduated from seminary in June, and was recruited to join the church staff. He and his wife, Melina, have quickly become part of the neighborhood.

“What attracted me to New York as a Christian minister is that the human experience is somehow heightened here,” he said. “There are so many cultures and many different types of people. To be able to minister in New York seems a challenge and exciting.”

The feeling is mutual, as far as the parish is concerned.

“There is great excitement at Calvary/St. George’s Church about Jake and Melina Smith,” said the Very Reverend Warren Haynes, a clergyperson on the parish’s staff. “The Smiths are a dynamic couple filled with fire and enthusiasm for their work. They are charismatic, and when Jacob comes into a room, suddenly it seems more alive. Jacob is a sparkplug here.”

Born in Arizona on an Indian reservation where his parents were teachers, Smith brings a big smile and an easygoing nature to his urban parish. The Smiths are far from staid; Jake and Melina are comfortable in clubs watching friends perform in rock and jazz bands. They also go to plays by upcoming playwrights, and visit art galleries.

Melina, who just celebrated her 27th birthday, is fluent in Spanish. She has put her sociology degree to use in a position with the Children’s Aid Society. Melina’s megawatt smile grows even brighter when she talks about her role as the wife of a clergyman.

“Jake and I are a team,” she said. “New York is a great place to be young, run around in, and work. As a minister’s wife, I find it exciting because people feel safe with me and open up in a way that is clear and a little more honest about what they are dealing with. I find it great to be a part of their lives and know what’s really going on.”

The couple admits that living in New York was not part of their original plan. Yet, they are delighted to become part of what is the city’s second oldest Episcopal church. They find the different neighborhoods very welcoming.

“New York is huge, but we find ourselves running into the same people,” said Melina. The Smiths have become energetic tour guides for visitors.

The place they now call home is Calvary/St. George’s, which is a combined parish. Calvary Church sits on the corner of 21st and Park Ave. S., and St. George’s Church faces Stuyvesant Square between 16th and 17th Sts. The parish is a busy place with three church services at St. George’s and one at Calvary on Sundays. The two church “campuses” also provide space for 12-step meetings, Bible study classes, a hot lunch program on Thursdays, a food pantry on Wednesdays and a year-round homeless shelter for men and women, which is the city’s oldest church shelter.

The Reverend Dr. Tom Pike serves as rector of Calvary/St. George’s. He is well known for his spiritual leadership, his role in landmark preservation, his avid support for the arts and his volunteer work as a board member on behalf of several nonprofit organizations. Smith thinks he is lucky to have such a knowledgeable mentor.

Another rector of St. George’s that Smith admires is the Reverend Stephen Tyng, who oversaw the building of the current church in 1845.

“I love Tyng for the theology he preached from the pulpit that changed many New Yorkers’ lives,” Smith explained. He also feels honored to follow in the footsteps of the Reverend Sam Shoemaker, rector at Calvary Church, who played a major part in the beginning of Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930s.

New York City has a wonderful history of great preachers, and although he is a rookie minister, Smith is at ease in the pulpit.

“I like giving sermons,” he said. “I am not interested in preaching about 10 steps to a better career. I am interested in delivering words of comfort, which are that no matter where you are in life that God has reconciled the world through Christ, and of God’s unconditional love for us.” Smith is proud that his Bible study groups, which meet on Wednesdays at 7 a.m. at Calvary and 7:30 p.m. at St. George’s, are flourishing.

The young couple has made the usual adjustments to life in the city. Melina has joined a local gym, and Jake plans to join a runners’ club. He also goes to Weight Watchers where he has met a lot of great people.

“They have the same problem I have, which is overeating.”

“We love being in the city, it is such a wonderful place. People have been so good to us,” said Melina. Jake agrees, and adds that he hopes that people will seek them out, in and out of the church.

“Wherever you are in your journey of faith,” he said, “we look forward to meeting you.”