Fifty miles from the clamor and fuss of the District, nestled in the hayfields at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is Mount Olive Baptist Church. Its quiet quarters are in Rectortown, where the scent of the hay bales permeates a passing car and tractors hum in the muggy distance.
This is how the church’s pastor, the Rev. Norman W. Smith, remembers it: a rural and unpolluted congregation where everybody knew your name.
Last Sunday, Smith, 83, gave his last sermon from the pulpit where he first preached 50 years earlier.
The members of Mount Olive sent him off in style. During the last week in July, the church hosted a series of special services featuring guest ministers and gospel choirs from all over Northern Virginia. A ticketed event, a banquet at the Marshall Ruritan Club on July 30, drew nearly 400 people.
The July 28 service, however, was intimate and offered a glimpse into the deep-seated bond between the pastor and his congregation. Ladies in floral dresses, cloche hats and pearls gathered in clusters while men in suits and handkerchiefs ambled into the church pews. They talked about their families, struggles, blessings and tragedies. They shared stories of despair and hope regained. Many remember the day the pastor first took the pulpit in spring 1961.
“You have been a father figure to this community,” one woman said. She remembers listening to his sermons as a child. “We grew up together, all of us. We’re kin.”
To his congregation in Fauquier County, Smith is more than a pastor. He is an emblem of virtue and devotion who, despite offers to head larger congregations, remained loyal to the little white church on Atoka Road.
“So many hungry preachers come in and say, ‘God called them’ here,” an older gentleman quipped. “But sure enough, they all leave and go to the mega-churches. Wait a second, I thought God called you here!”
Smith was born in Arlington County, the oldest of six children. In 1940, when he was 12, his mother died giving birth to his youngest sister. According to his daughter, Lorri Jackson, his mother was taken to Arlington Hospital but was not accepted because she was black. She died from blood loss en route to a D.C. hospital.
Smith and his siblings moved in with an aunt in Georgetown, and at 16, he dropped out of high school to help support the family.
Seeking solace in his relationship with God, he sang in the church choirs, where he later met his wife, Grace. They married in 1949. After testing his hand at preaching, he attended the Washington Baptist Seminary in the District and graduated in 1960.
“I had this terrible urge to represent God as best I could,” he said. Within a year, he accepted the position of pastor and began blazing a trail to put Mount Olive on the map.
One of his first initiatives was instituting weekly worship services; when he arrived at Mount Olive in 1961, the congregation met only twice a month. Under his guidance, the church also helped sponsor Boy Scout troops, scholarship programs, food banks and a community outreach group called Mount Olive Cares. Over the years, he also instituted several church choirs including a men’s chorus and the N.W. Smith Chorale.
In 1983, Smith quit his day job with the U. S. Postal Service in McLean to pastor full time. He oversaw the formation of a Sunday school and several renovations (when he started, the church didn’t have bathrooms), and he introduced the congregation to Lott Carey, a Baptist foreign-mission convention based in the District. He traveled the world on service missions to Liberia, Nigeria and Ghana, among others, and established a monthly church newsletter called the Olive Leaf in the early 1980s. In 2008, he helped establish the church Web site, www.mtoliverectortown.org.
He also built a family. Smith, who has lived in Gainesville for 40 years, has five children, 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
For five decades, he traveled more than 20 miles from his home to the church to deliver his sermons.
Jackson recalled her father’s sermons as “powerful and energetic” and often attended by people from all over Northern Virginia. “He was fiery,” Jackson recalled, laughing. “The little kids would always ask, ‘Why is he yelling at us?’ But he was just in the spirit . . . He brought down the house.”
Smith says his departure is bittersweet. Over his five decades in Fauquier and Prince William counties, Smith has witnessed a loss of intimacy that he thinks stems from the area’s allure to commuters. Although he admits the church has suffered, he has tried to act as the glue holding his congregation together.
“Praising the Lord reminds us of what we’ve been given,” he said, “rather than dwelling on what has been taken away.”
During the July 28 service, the keynote speaker was Carroll Baltimore, who opted not to read his scripted sermon from his iPad but rather deliver “from the heart.” Baltimore, the vice president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention and the senior pastor of the International Community Baptist Churches, worships in the “megachurch” league.
He noted, at the close of his address, that compassion is what separates the pastor from the rest. “This man is proof that God is still in the blessing business,” he said.
Smith plans to continue his involvement in the ministry, but at a slower pace. Ideally, he’d like to become a mentor for younger preachers and help them develop their skills.
Looking ahead, the church has assembled a pastoral search committee and is reviewing applications. Smith has one word of advice to Mount Olive’s future pastor: “Take chances. It has been my experience that most great ideas require a leap of faith.”