Dressed in a black robe and a clergy collar, Father Richard Smith often stands in contrast to the people for whom he rallies, quietly but with all of his heart. He says some of his most important work happens outside the church, going to the places where members of his community are forgotten.
“Jesus got in trouble because he was always hanging out with the outcasts – the people that nobody else wanted,” he said. “He certainly did not spend his time within the four walls of the church.”
And neither does the priest. As a rule of thumb, Father Richard said he visits the places “where there is the most pain and rejection.” This could include a homeless encampment, a living room of a family torn apart by violence, or an undocumented community member facing deportation.
District 9 Supervisor David Campos hailed the 65-year-old as an unsung hero.
“His presence is incredibly calming and he provides a level of serendipity that is badly needed,” said Campos. Though soft-spoken and humble, the priest is radical about defending morality, Campos said.
Artist and attorney Adriana Camarena once called on Father Richard to hold a vigil for Alex Nieto, the 28-year-old man who was killed by San Francisco police officers on Bernal Hill in 2014, and described him as “the representation of spiritual acceptance.”
“He will stand by the danzantes in the Mission, chant with Alex Nieto’s buddhist friends on Bernal Hill, and lead the Sunday sermon at his church,” she said.
Even before becoming the vicar of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist on 15th and Julian Streets, Father Richard provided moral support to his community, rallied behind immigration reform and stood in solidarity with protestors of the Mission’s anti-eviction movement. He held vigils in the Mission and in other neighborhoods for victims of police brutality such as Amilcar Perez-Lopez, Alex Nieto, and Mario Woods.
For community organizer and leader of the ‘Our Mission No Eviction’ movement Roberto Hernandez, the activist priest is quite literally “walking the talk of the Bible.”
He remembers seeing Father Richard at a City Hall protest last year. “We went up to the second floor and knocked on Mayor Ed Lee’s office. We were chanting and yelling, and I look over, and I see this man in a clergy collar yelling so hard his face turned red. I don’t know many priests who would do that.”
When he’s not protesting, Father Richard works to keep St. John’s meaningful to all. He recently, for example, opened the church’s doors to the homeless, offering them coffee and a safe place to sleep for four hours during the day. The effort meant partnering with the Gubbio Project, a homeless outreach program, which provided 50 roll-out mats for those in need to use between 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. on weekdays.
Following the lead of Saint Boniface Catholic Church at 133 Golden Gate Ave., St. John’s is now the second church in the city to offer this service.
“On the streets, you sleep with one eye open,” said Father Richard. “This will be a place where they can at least have a few hours in a warm, dry, safe place to forget about their troubles.”
Father Richard started as a Catholic Jesuit priest in 1978, but left the priesthood 13 years later, for personal and political reasons. Though the Catholic Church saw some progressive changes following his ordination, the openly gay priest said he “grew increasingly uncomfortable” with stances taken by the Vatican under Pope John Paul II on issues such as birth control at the height of the aids epidemic in the 80s, and silencing Catholic dissidents’ calls for openness.
“There were young men walking around with canes, dying and ostracized, who needed more support. I found it very difficult to function as a priest and as a gay man in the wider church,” he explained.
Stepping away from the pulpit meant embracing a more conventional life.
He received a Ph.D. in Ethics and Social Theory from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, taught for a few years, and then went on to work as a technical writer. “It’s what paid the bills,” he said about a 15-year-stint at Oracle, where he wrote manuals about how to use software.
When he moved to the Mission in the mid-90s, Father Richard said it was humbling to walk through its streets after clocking out of his Silicon Valley job.
“I was meeting people from Harvard and Stanford, and then came home to my neighborhood to see people who were homeless, poor, down on life,” he said.
This anecdote of privilege and inequality is woven throughout his life and work, which often go hand-in-hand.
“I don’t know if Father Richard sleeps,” said Evangeline Baker, the Food Pantry coordinator at St. John’s. “He dedicates most of his time fighting for others, because he cares.”
As a spiritual man, Father Richard said he began to miss the Church. He remembered being encouraged by his community to join the Episcopalians, where women can become priests and gay partitioners are welcomed.
He was received as Episcopal priest by the Grace Cathedral at 1100 California St. in 2001, and shortly afterwards began volunteering at St. John’s, which he referred to as “a haven in a heartless world.”
“Whether it was offering sanctuary to Salvadoran immigrants during the civil war or supporting gay men during the HIV epidemic, St. John’s wound up being a critical place for people find support,” said Father Richard. Two years ago, he was asked to become St. John’s vicar.
Free to live a life of his own design, Father Richard married Rob, his partner of 10 years, when the state briefly began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2008.
“We barely made that window,” he remembered with a smile that procured faint wrinkles around his bright blue eyes. And although most know him as “father,” the priest stepped into a role that he once deemed unattainable. The following year, he and his husband became parents.
The couple travelled to Guatemala to adopt their son, David. “He’s a pretty American kid, for better or for worse,” said Father Richard of his teenager. It was also during this time that he took up activism.
Father Richard said he was troubled by stories he had been hearing about immigrant families unjustly targeted by law enforcement and torn apart by deportations.After attending a meeting held to address the issue by the San Francisco Organizing Project, an interfaith action group that works to address economic and racial injustices in the Bay Area, he joined the group.
“Father Richard is one of the rare people who is willing to stand with anyone and everyone who is facing a challenge or injustice in their lives,” said Jennifer Martinez, executive director of the Organizing Project. “He quietly offers every part of himself to whoever needs it.”
Martinez said that the priest began leading monthly night walks, a non-violent prayer action in which faith communities walk through the Mission, stopping at sites where violence has occurred to pray for the victims.
It was during these night walks, said Martinez, that Father Richard became heavily involved with a campaign to indict the officers who shot Amilcar Perez-Lopez, a 21-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who was killed in the spring of 2015.
“He galvanized us as an organization to take on the case,” said Martinez, explaining that Father Richard connected with the neighbors and spoke with witnesses. “He seems to carry Amilcar in his heart, I think there is a very personal connection there.”
After seeing a picture of Perez-Lopez at a vigil, Father Richard remembers doing a double take.
“He looked just like my son,” he said. “He was Mayan, an immigrant – that could have been my kid. I still well-up when I talk about it.”
Florencia Rojo met Father Richard in the midst of the community-led efforts to expose what she called “a pattern of police violence” throughout the city and country.
The two collaborated in modest fundraising efforts for the slain man’s family in Guatemala, and held marches and vigils locally. She said the priest has been instrumental in pressuring the District Attorney “to take the case seriously.”
“I do not think this makes him radical, I think it means he is grounded in reality,” she said.
This year, Father Richard’s activism takes yet another form. The priest appears in “Lowrider Lawyers: Putting a City on Trial,” a film that stems from a community effort in telling the story Alex Nieto’s death, which premiered at the Mission’s Brava Theater on Sunday.
The short film is centered around a community trial of the officers who shot Nieto, in which residents of the Mission act as members of the judicial system and critically question the police narrative.
The priest said he laughed at the irony when he was approached to play the role of a police officer facing trial. He couldn’t refuse.
“They needed an old white guy to play the cop. I did say I would do whatever,” joked Father Richard. “You have to do what it takes to get the story out there. We are turning the heat up, and making sure it doesn’t fall through the cracks.”