This Sunday the congregation of First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica will celebrate Dr. James “Jim” Smith’s 50th anniversary as director of music for the church.

The church has invited everyone to worship at 10 a.m. in the church sanctuary, where their chancel choir will debut a new anthem created by “world-renowned” composer Kirke Mechem, which was commissioned by the church to honor Smith.

Throughout his time at First UMC, Smith “has supported countless musicians, restored and tuned innumerable pianos, overseen the development and maintenance of our organ, and added a grand piano to the mix,” wrote the church’s senior minister, Reverend Patricia Farris.

“He has worked with talented vocalists and composers. His music has delighted the hearts of many throughout the community. But to my mind, most praiseworthy of all is his ability to make ordinary folks sound and feel like God’s own heavenly choir, coaxing gorgeous music from mere mortals week in and week out, all to the praise and glory of God.”

Building a history

Smith, turning 75-years-old next week, came from a musical and religious family with a Methodist minister for a father and a mother who dabbled in piano.

He began his career at First UMC in June of 1965 when he arrived in California to work on his doctorate at USC. During his first week in town he applied for the position of choir director, even though it was a full-time position for which the church had already interviewed over 20 people.

Smith was asked to attend a music committee meeting, during which the choir happened to be rehearsing. The committee asked him if he would like to direct the choir in a piece and he agreed.

“So we went up to the choir room, I leafed through their choir book and found one of the songs that I knew like the back of my hand, ‘Psalm 150’ by Cesar Franck. I rolled up my sleeves and conducted the piece – I could tell they were all watching,” Smith said in an interview with the church.

Smith said the church decided they could not afford a full-time music director, so all the applicants dropped out. Except for him. Smith was then offered the position.

“The minister at the time asked me how long I would be here and I said ‘Really it’s gonna take me about three years to finish my doctorate’ … And they said ‘Oh that’d be fine.’ So I didn’t have any clue I’d still be here 50 years later,” Smith said.

According to Smith “it all worked together,” as he happened to be hired to teach at Santa Monica College and he and his wife Barbara chose to live in Santa Monica and raise their children here.

Working with Jim

Smith has been responsible for many of the iconic events at the church over the years including their theater productions, annual Christmas concerts and Mid-Week recitals. According to Farris, the Christmas concerts alone bring in a full house, beyond the church congregation, every year.

But Farris cares about more than just what Smith can do for the church, noting that Smith himself is a great friend and colleague.

“Jim’s got a great sense of humor,” Farris said. “[He is] very dedicated, very creative. He has a treasure chest of knowledge of the church that is wide ranging. He is always bringing something fresh to the worship that speaks to the congregation. And music is a way of drawing us close to God and he opens that door for people.”

Farris enjoys collaborating with Smith regularly.

“We plan carefully and thoroughly and with the hope that the whole worship service will reinforce the theme of the day, and he’s a wonderful collaborator and colleague in that sense. I can say almost any theme and he can say anything that will fit and draw people more deeply into that theme.”

Accepting the honor

“It’s too much,” Smith said in regards to the celebration First UMC is giving him. “You know I’d just as soon them say ‘Thanks for being here 50 years,’ give me a hardy handshake and leave. But they decided they should do more than that, so I don’t know. It’s kind of who knew when I came here I’d be here for 50 years?”

Smith said it is appropriate that they will be honoring his wife as well. “She’s been very active in the choir too,” Smith said, noting that Barbara became soprano section leader shortly after the two arrived. “We’ve been sort of a duo combo.”

While Smith may know about the celebration, organizers said they have kept a few of the details secret to maintain an element of surprise.

Going forward

Smith said after the celebration he hopes that the choir can just continue to do what they do best.

“We have a strong faithful choir. In fact three members of my choir have been here since I started 50 years ago … Choirs are hard to get these days. It is a big commitment. You have to commit to an hour and a half on Thursday night for rehearsal and an hour and a half on Sunday mornings. And we expect you to come regularly. You don’t just drop in and out.

“So we have a good group who comes almost all the time. So we just keep doing our thing every Sunday.”

As far as how long Smith plans to stay in his position after this anniversary, he joked, “I’m assuming they’re not giving me a retirement party. So hopefully I’ll still be here a few more years.”

The celebration honoring Smith will be held on Sunday, Sept. 27 at First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica, 1008 11th St., at 10 a.m. in the sanctuary. There will be a luncheon reception following the service held in Simkins Hall in the Shelby Center where guests can greet Smith and his wife Barbara.

“I hope that people from the community who’ve enjoyed the concerts over the years will feel welcome to come. There will be plenty of food so the whole community is invited,” Farris said.

Photo credit: Allan Walker

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