Meet Thomas Smith, UCC’s Newest Partner in Service

Thomas Smith was teaching English as a Second Language as a Global Ministries Intern in South Korea when a family emergency called him back to Georgia, in May. His father had died, and his mother needed help moving into a different house.

Thomas Smith, giving a sermon at Columbia Theological Seminary during his Senior Chapel Week.

As the family situation stabilized, Smith began exploring his next calling.

He has found it. On November 1, he will become the United Church of Christ’s newest Partner in Service volunteer, serving in Sahuarita, Ariz., with The Good Shepherd UCC’s U.S.-Mexico border ministries. UCC/Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Global Ministries is a supporting partner in his placement, helping Smith connect with Good Shepherd and contributing to his airfare.

Smith’s new, one-year, full-time assignment will be with migrants in desperate need, said Good Shepherd’s lead pastor, the Rev. Randy Mayer.

The church’s Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans ministry works to “save lives and relieve suffering in the Arizona borderlands.” The ministry places food and water in the desert for migrants, searches the desert for migrants in distress, and helps operate shelters on both sides of the border.

Water in the desert. Photo courtesy Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans

Smith shared his excitement to work with a ministry that is “literally saving lives.” He will be involved in all aspects of the ministry, including teaching English at least once a week in a Nogales, Mexico, shelter for asylum seekers, Mayer said. He’ll also be engaged in Good Shepherd’s worship life and youth ministry.

“He’ll bring energy, and support we really need,” the pastor said. “We have lots of volunteers but it will be good to have someone with focus, and also to have a UCC presence on the Mexican side.”

Smith, 33, grew up United Methodist in Atlanta. He became a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) nine years ago. His home congregation is Cherry Log (Ga.) Christian Church.

He graduated Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., in 2018, and deployed to South Korea in 2019.

“I had a great experience in Korea,” Smith said. He served with the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea, teaching four English as a Second Language classes and helping with translation and subtitling.

Thomas Smith in his classroom in South Korea. Photo courtesy Thomas Smith

Smith becomes a UCC Partner in Service as that ministry resumes, carefully, with clear COVID-19 safety protocols.

“With vaccination protocols in place, volunteer sites are cautiously and carefully beginning to receive individual volunteers,” said the Rev. Elena Larssen, UCC Minister for Volunteer Engagement.

“Soon, popular sites like Back Bay Mission will also be able to receive mission trip groups,” Larssen said. “Volunteering on a national scale is waking up. And, of course, many congregations have valiantly continued or even started new ministries to ease the suffering of their communities – ministries that run on the love and generosity of volunteers.”

The UCC’s Partners in Service program coordinates a volunteer, a nonprofit site of service, and the National Setting as a three-part engagement in service. The three parties share expenses related to volunteer placements, and meet together on a regular basis.

The program increases the service capacity of the partner host organizations, providing leadership development and the opportunity for volunteers to use gifts and skills.

Partners in Service is a program of UCC Volunteer Ministries, which in turn is part of UCC Wider Church Ministries’ Global H.O.P.E. team.

Global H.O.P.E. also includes Refugee and Migration, Disaster and Sustainable Development ministries. The acronym “H.O.P.E.” makes clear the team’s vision: Humanitarian. Opportunities. Progress. Empowerment.

Larssen’s Global H.O.P.E. colleague the Rev. Irene Hassan, Minister for Refugee and Migration Ministries, commented, “We are inspired by Thomas’s dedication to learning and serving alongside our asylum seeking neighbors at the Southern border.

“Our hope,” she said, “is that his tenure as a Partner in Service will inspire other young adults across our denomination to imagine developing their sense of purpose and spiritual direction through engaging with migration ministries.”

Mayer commented that Partners in Service “really is a great model to connect the local mission site to the national church and to involve individuals in work that’s both national and local. He added that his call to ordained ministry “definitely” came through his several years serving as a UCC volunteer in the 1980s and 1990s.

Current Partners in Service openings are listed at UCC Ministry Opportunities, with a link to apply.