Leon Smith, pioneer in marriage, family education, dead at 82
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) -- The Rev. Charles Leon Smith Jr., a United Methodist marriage and family educator who worked to eradicate the attitude that sex should not be discussed at church, died Jan. 23 at Belcourt Nursing Home in Nashville at the age of 82. He had suffered with Parkinson's Disease for nearly 15 years.
He is survived by his wife Antoinette, also a certified sex educator. The husband-wife team developed a Marriage Communication Lab and Training Program that continues today. They trained more than 1,000 leader couples from 29 denominations and 15 countries. In 1977, they went to Germany under contract with the Department of the Army to train chaplains and their wives to lead marriage communication labs. They were the founding national secretaries of the Association of Couples for Marriage Enrichment and received the organization's second annual award for their pioneering work in strengthening marriage.
Speaking to United Methodist sex educators at a national event in Houston in 1979, Smith challenged them to help the church become a place where human sexuality could be openly discussed. He helped the denomination produce sex education materials for all ages. The significance of those early materials, Smith once observed, was that along with biological information, they contained "attitudes and values affirming sexuality as a gift from God."
The church wasn't always ready for Smith's straightforward discussion of sex, and he was often in trouble with some pastors and denominational leaders. He observed in the 1970s that the United Methodist Church was moving toward a greater acceptance of homosexuals and homosexual lifestyles.
"One's sexual orientation is not one of morality," he said. "One's sexuality is something one discovers but does not choose. Morality involves what is done with that sexuality."
He wrote a number of books, including a study volume on Homosexuality: In Search of a Christian Understanding in 1981. Other books written by the Smiths included Growing Love in Christian Marriage, and To Love and to Cherish: The Pastor's Manual for Pre-marital Counseling in The United Methodist Church.
In addition to his wife, Smith is survived by four married sons and their spouses -- Leon McDonald and Elaine Smith of Lawrenceville, Ga.; James Ferrell and Marcia Smith of Shrewsbury, Mass.; Mark Harrison and Ann Adkins Smith of Nashville; and Stephen Andrew and Kristen Smith of Dahlonega, Ga. -- and four grandchildren.
Born in LaGrange, Ga., in 1918, Smith earned his undergraduate and theological degrees from United Methodist-related Emory University in Atlanta, and his doctorate from Columbia University in New York. He also did four years of graduate work at Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, N.J.
A clergy member of the North Georgia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, he served as pastor of churches in Georgia and New Jersey and was conference director of youth work and director of the Wesley Foundation at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. He joined the staff of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship in Nashville in 1961, where he served until 1980.
Smith was the first clergyperson to receive the certificate of "Advanced Orientation in Marriage Counseling" for in-service training from the Marriage Council of Philadelphia in 1949-50. His doctorate was in education for marriage and family living, and his dissertation was on "A Philosophy of Family Life Education for The Methodist Church."
Smith was a fellow in the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. He was a certified sex educator and sex therapist in the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists.
He was a leader in the General Committee on Family Life of the United Methodist Church for 20 years and worked with many ecumenical organizations working on family and marriage concerns.
In the early 1950s, Smith, chairman of the North Georgia Conference on World Peace, was actively involved in the world peace refugee program that sought to help German refugee families resettle in the United States. The Smiths, with a one-bath house, opened their home to a family of nine, who lived with them for six weeks.
Smith often recounted an experience when he was president of the Georgia Council on Better Human Relations. Singer Harry Belafonte was secured to be the main speaker at a fund-raiser but at the last minute was unable to attend. Taking his place was a young black preacher from Montgomery, Ala., named the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Feb. 4 at West End United Methodist Church in Nashville. A reception will follow the service. In lieu of flowers, gifts may be made to National Parkinson Foundation, Suite 313-1601, 23rd Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn.; or the Association of Couples for Marriage Enrichment, P.O. Box 10596, Winston-Salem, NC 27108. # # #