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Rev. Philip A. Smith, pastor was active in Vietnam War protests

Jan. 1, 1938 – Dec. 23, 2015

Coming from a Chicago seminary, the Rev. Philip A. Smith brought lofty ambitions as he settled in Buffalo 51 years ago. He wanted a ministry in the inner city. He pushed for peace. And he sought to nurture the spiritual and social well-being of everyone from poor African-American children to college-age Vietnam War protesters – doing so not just from the pulpit, but with cheerful enthusiasm on basketball courts, in food pantries and at anti-war rallies during some of the country’s most tumultuous years in the 1960s and 1970s.

A memorial service for the Rev. Smith, of Kenmore, will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at Pilgrim-St. Luke’s United Church of Christ, 335 Richmond Ave., where he served as pastor from 1979 to 1988. He died Dec. 23 at the Schofield Residence in the Town of Tonawanda after a long illness. He was 77.

The Rev. Smith found welcoming congregations after he moved to Buffalo in 1964 – and also drew suspicion from the government over his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War.

His wife, the former Lynn Seelbach, recalls the day when two FBI agents showed up at their North Buffalo home to question him because he had refused to pay the federal excise tax on his phone bill. The telephone tax was used to raise money for the war, so he would subtract the amount of the tax from his bill and then mail his payment noting his conscientious objection to the war.

In 1970, an association of Western New York Catholic priests backed the right of the Rev. Smith and two other clergymen to oppose the Vietnam War for reasons of conscience by not paying part of their U.S. income tax for 1969.

He was arrested at the U.S. Capitol at a demonstration against the war and draft, spending a night in jail until the president of his Buffalo congregation sent bail money.

While pastor of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Buffalo, his church became the hub of the local support effort for the “Buffalo Five.”

The Rev. Smith also put up his home as collateral for the bail of one of the five people arrested in August 1971 for trying to steal draft files from the then-Ellicott Street Post Office building. They became known as the “Buffalo Five” as they stood trial in federal court. They were convicted and sentenced to time served. Mrs. Smith said her husband helped plan the effort but was not among those who went to the downtown Post Office building.

She said her husband’s peace activism made her nervous “only when he decided to put up the house as collateral for the bail.”

The Rev. Smith, an Albany native who was ordained in 1964, served as pastor at St. Peter’s, New Covenant and Pilgrim-St. Luke churches in Buffalo. Marianne Rathman recalls being on the St. Peter’s search committee looking for a pastor.

“We didn’t have a lot of choices because we were a white congregation at Genesee and Hickory streets in a poor African-American neighborhood,” she said.

In the Rev. Smith, they found someone eager to serve. He set up programs for young people and formed and coached youth basketball teams.

“He was loved as a pastor,” she said. “He was a great preacher.”

While at Pilgrim-St. Luke’s church, he organized and started the Loaves and Fishes Dining Room at Lafayette Presbyterian Church. He was also a founding member of Habitat for Humanity in Buffalo.

Later he served as pastor at a church in St. Petersburg, Fla., and upon returning to the area, at churches in Wellsville, Dunkirk and Eden.

He served on the coordinating board of the Western New York Peace Center. In retirement, he organized a peace group at Pilgrim-St. Luke’s and led peace liturgies for 29 congregations.

The Rev. Smith graduated from Colgate University with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1960, and he earned a bachelor of divinity degree from the Chicago Theological Seminary in 1964. Then he moved to Buffalo with his wife, a native of Hamburg.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Jeffrey; two daughters, Julie Zenger and Jennifer Zakrzewski; a brother, Charles; and nine grandchildren.

– Patrick Lakamp

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