Sheila Belgrave, the daughter of legendary Black church leader, Pastor Io Smith (15.9.1937 – 11.5.2008), is organising a memorial service on May 11 to celebrate her amazing legacy.
Pastor Io Smith was a key pioneer of the Black church movement here in the UK, and through her pastorate, her community activities (both here and abroad) and ecumenical work, she made a lasting impact on the church and wider society that exists to this day. Her achievements include founding a school in Ghana, which now has a school roll of 500+ pupils; establishing a Christian Training Institute; starting a children’s fund in Jamaica for the disadvantaged; launching Day Care Centres and Sheltered Housing for the elderly; establishing the New Testament Assembly as a denomination to be reckoned with, and receiving an MBE from the Queen.
Sheila Belgrave spoke to Keep The Faith about her mother’s life, her contributions to the church, and her enduring legacy.
KEEP THE FAITH (KTF): Pastor Io Smith led Leyton New Testament Assembly (NTA) which, during the 1980s, was one of the most well-known Black churches in the country. What caused the church to get such a high profile?
SHEILA BELGRAVE (SB): My mother was fundamentally not only a Pentecostal Minister; she was a woman of the people. She believed in living a life that brought joy to others. She believed that the Church should not remain insular, and should not reserve its activities to just Sundays. She believed in sharing, caring and reaching those in need. In the early years of her ministry, my mother would fellowship with all churches locally and nationally. She travelled nationally and internationally. She preached, taught and socialised with all kinds of people who could influence and help her achieve her vision for growth and expansion in the community.
KTF: What were your mother’s key passions during her years of ministry, and how were these lived out in her life?
SB: Mum’s real passion was for young people and education. She believed that ‘Children are the future’. This passion was manifested as early as the late 70s, when my mother started the Vacation Bible School (VBS). It was a great time where, during the summer holidays, young people of all ages were brought together in the summer. VBS spread across the NTA. She also started the Institute of Christian Training (ICT) in 1981. It became affiliated with the University of Wales in 1984. She was involved in numerous projects in Waltham Forest. In the 1970s, she set up a Youth Outreach Service in Leytonstone to keep youngsters off the streets, which was ground-breaking for that era. She ran a hugely successful club for senior citizens from the Caribbean. When I reflect on the 70s and 80s, I can recall the vast number of young people who became Christians under the ministry of my mother, and her passion for young people to change their lives.
KTF: Pastor Io Smith MBE is considered an exemplary female pastor and pioneering Black Christian leader. What do you think have been her key contributions to the Church here in the UK?
SB: I often hear people say she was a formidable role model for female leaders in the Church. She paved the way for women to be recognised in the Church in a male-dominated environment; she crossed the boundaries between the Church and the community. She took the church to the streets, into businesses and into projects that had an impact. She started projects in the Caribbean, and helped to establish the Mother Smith International School in Ghana – a ministry of the NTA.
KTF: What kind of things have people said to you about how Pastor Smith’s ministry touched their lives?
SB: My mother passed away five years ago, and still today people say that she lives in their hearts forever. She helped people believe that they can achieve anything they want to, by trusting God, being determined, fighting for what is right, and having a positive attitude to life. People have said how my mother blessed them financially, allowing them to start a business or by paying for a child’s tuition fees, which allowed them to have an education. I have numerous testimonies of where people have said my mother took them in and fed them, clothed them and helped them get back on their feet. She has even taken off her wedding ring and married a couple who were so desperate to get married!
KTF: When you think about your mum, what kind of thoughts come to mind about her as a person, and her as a minister?
SB: Powerful, no nonsense, formidable, strong, family-loving, who believed in women having the same rights as men. A mother who loved to pray without ceasing for her children, her family and the Church. As a minister, one who knew the Word, loved a church that could worship, and was Spirit-led and Spirit-filled, and that catered for the needs of people. A church that had a thriving Sunday school and Youth department. A minister who built relationships and partnerships with her ministerial colleagues. She demonstrated that church leadership was not dependent on gender.
KTF: One of your mother’s most enduring legacies is the school she set up in Ghana. Can you tell us a bit about it and its key achievements?
SB: The Mother Smith International School (MSIS) was founded in 1984, under the leadership of the NTA Ghana, as a ministry of the NTA. MSIS now has approximately 550 pupils, 18 teachers and eight staff. The school has been going for over a quarter of a century and was, reportedly, the best school in the district for academic performance. The MSIS provides good quality education, with a fee level affordable to the poor as its ‘unique selling point’, as well as being an essential service to the general residents of the area. The school has produced doctors, lawyers, accountants and numerous other professionals. There is a strong sponsorship programme in place.
KTF: Can you tell me a bit about your mum’s upbringing; how she became a Christian, and what inspired her to become a church leader?
SB: My mother was born in the village of Aberdeen in the parish St Elizabeth, Jamaica. She was the fifth of nine children, and her father was a Baptist minister, the local councillor and community leader. At home, mum would have to participate in family worship before breakfast and the last thing at night. My grandfather’s philosophy was that a ‘family that prayed together stayed together’. That was the foundation of her life. She described her childhood as an extremely happy one, being with her siblings and enjoying the large extended family she loved, particularly her elder brother, the late Bishop Melvin Lee Powell. My mother’s world almost came to an end when my grandmother died when she was 12. She said that at the time she “wanted to die too” as she felt her world had “come to an end.” It was when she came to London to join her husband that she had the call to ministry. She attended the Richmond Road Church in East London, and there she was called and it became the dawn and preparation of her ministry. She joined her brother, Rev Powell, and friends, Rev Bernard and Rev Doyley, and we saw the birth of the NTA.
KTF: You are planning a special event to celebrate her life. What’s going to be happening, and who will be taking part?
SB: This service will be held on the anniversary of her death, five years to the day. It will be a celebration of her achievements and her ‘enduring legacy’. We hope people from her past, present and future will come together to reflect on what she has achieved. We hope to have some of her close friends there, like Rev Joe Aldred and Rev Les Isaac OBE. Of course, the NTA will be represented also, with numerous other church leaders from a range of denominations that knew my mother. We will also be doing a presentation on the school in Ghana and on the sponsorship programme. There will be special guest singers and wonderful praise and worship.
KTF: What do you think your mum would say about the state of the Black Church if she were alive today?
SB: I believe in all honesty that my mother would be saddened. I believe she would be disappointed to see that not enough is being done in the community to help those who are in need and, in particular, for young people. She would want to see the Church at the forefront of key issues affecting the Black community, such as youth crime and the rise in ill health in our elderly people. She would also want to see more unity amongst the Black-led churches, and would be troubled by the lack of vision in some elements of the Church community. I believe that she would want to see church leaders in politics, and in positions where they can influence and make a difference. She always felt that the Church should break down barriers, and that church leaders should sit around every table that affects our community.
KTF: And what are the main things you would like people to draw from Pastor Io Smith’s life and legacy?
SB: Her courage, her strength of character, her sense of achievement in all things. Her sense of purpose and fulfilment. That people matter, and that if you live in this world you can make a difference. That as a child of God, you must not settle for less.My mother would always say “Only what I do for Christ will last…”
An Enduring Legacy, a thanksgiving service celebrating the life of Pastor Io Smith, takes place on May 11 at the New Testament Assembly, 214 Langthorne Road, Leytonstone, London E11 4HS at 6pm. For more details visit www.facebook.com/DrIoSmith