By Steve Beard
John Smith, an evangelist, author, and founder of the God’s Squad Motorcycle Club in Australia, died on March 6, 2019, after a long battle with cancer. He was 76 years old.
According to news reports, hundreds of bikers were in attendance at Smith’s funeral to pay their respects – including those from so-called outlaw motorcycle clubs such as the Hell’s Angels, Gypsy Jokers, Bandidos, Coffin Cheaters, and Immortals, reported Eternity News. The celebration of Smith’s life took place at Wave Church in Ocean Grove, a coastal community in the southeast of Australia.
Smith, a clergyman and social activist, became the founding President of the Melbourne chapter of God’s Squad in 1972. Currently, there are God’s Squad members in 16 nations around the globe.
Sean Stillman, president of God’s Squad UK chapter and author of God’s Biker: Motorcycles and Misfits, described Smith at the funeral as an “academic, a pastor, a preacher, a prophetic voice, an irritant to a comfortable church, an advocate for justice, the poor, the marginalized, and the arts,” reported Sight Magazine. More significantly, Stillman said, was his role as husband to Glena, Smith’s wife, and father to his three children and 17 grandchildren.
Smith garnered attention through his Christian message, appeal to social justice, friendship with so-called outlaw bikers, and roaring motorcycles. Smith earned his nickname “Bullfrog” because he was considered to be the “loudest frog in the pond,” revealed Glena, his wife for 51 years, in a film about Smith’s ministry called “Smithy.”
Stillman spoke of Smith’s ability to connect with men and women “whether it be in a smoky clubhouse bar, backstage at a rock ‘n roll gig, or in the corridors of political power, a chapel pulpit, a street corner talking to a complete stranger, sitting amid Indigenous communities, engaging in academic dialogue, or crying in the pouring rain at a graveside.”
Smith believed that Christian discipleship and mission were best taught and learned “on the road,” said Stillman.“It was where you worked out what it meant to be a follower of his hero, Jesus of Nazareth. The road would take you to the marginalized. He taught us that the Gospel still ought to be good news for the poor and uncomfortable news for the powerful.”
Smith was a tireless advocate for human rights and indigenous peoples. Aunty Jean Phillips, an Aboriginal Christian leader from Queensland, testified at the funeral to Smith’s friendship with the Aboriginal community and recalled his “real heart for justice.”
Stillman read an email at the funeral from U2 frontman Bono. “John quite liked that some churchy people thought of him as a heretic: Big smile across his face. ‘You mean like Jesus matey?’” Smith would respond after decades of being misunderstood because of his hippie looks and biker associations. Bono and the band first became acquainted with Smith while U2 was touring through Australia in 1984 during the “Unforgettable Fire” tour.
“To John the Bible was an incendiary tract – not some handbook on religion,” wrote Bono. “It was not a sop for mankind’s fear of death – it was an epic poem about life. It spoke about culture, about politics, about justice.”
Bono continued: “When Bob Dylan sang ‘always on the other side of whatever side there was,’ he might have been singing about John, an outsider in an outsider community, an outlaw of a different kind preparing the way for the coming of a different kind of world, speaking truth to power.
“In our last meeting he spoke truth to me, gave me a hell of a hard time, thought I had gone soft and become too comfortable around the powerful. Thought I was living too well,” Bono recalled. “He was probably right. I still think about it.”
Smith’s theological role model was John Wesley, the 18th century itinerant evangelist and founder of the Methodist Church. The Rev. Ian Clarkson, a Uniting Church clergyman, said Smith, by one calculation, had travelled some 2.25 million miles on his motorcycle. “Wesley did some 225,000 miles on horseback and preached 40,000 sermons. I reckon John would probably have eclipsed that here in Australia,” Clarkson said. Smith’s ministry, like that of Wesley’s, was focused on those who were on the edge of society. “John went to those who were left out, who were on the margins, who were sometimes despised,” said Clarkson, “who sometimes didn’t know where they were at for all sorts of reasons.”
Stillman observed that Smith “remained passionate about the need for the message of Jesus to be faithfully proclaimed in the public sphere, But he also taught us that it should be something that should be lived. Putting it into practice was not an optional extra.”