As a mother who spent the entirety of each one of her pregnancies flat on her back on doctor’s-ordered bed rest, Steph Smith knows something about personal pain.
"I think suffering changes you, if you have time to sit with it and ask for help and kind of be brought to your knees by it," says the 40-year-old mother of four. "When I’m pregnant, and my physical capacity is stripped from me, and I need to rely on my kids and husband and others to take care of me … all I have are my mind and my thoughts and my spirituality. What I’ve learned from those experiences is that that’s the time when I’m the strongest."
As a universal mother, Steph Smith knows something about universal pain.
"Once you’re a mother, all children could be your child," she says. "When you see children who are wandering the streets of Nairobi and they’re 5 years old and they’re carrying their 2-year-old brother on their back and there’s no adult in sight and you wonder, ‘Where are you going? Where did you come from?’
"When you see other people’s pain, you take that on. If you have a pulse. If your heart is beating, it affects you, right? So you go into these places where there’s extreme poverty, and I mean poverty that we don’t understand. I thought I got poverty. Not until I saw what I saw there."
As a resident of South Minneapolis and all the luxuries it provides, Steph Smith knows something about perspective.
"My biggest worry is to get to Lynnhurst Park tonight by 8 to sign up a couple kids up for basketball," she says. "But even though that’s my world, and that’s the world I chose to raise my kids in, I can also share with my kids about Frida, over in Zambia, who has four of her own kids.
"I never met her husband. He wasn’t present at all. She is taking care of her cousin with AIDS, she’s a caretaker herself in her community, meaning that she goes out every day and takes care of vulnerable children or ill adults, and still cares for all these other children. …"
As an American who traveled to Africa earlier this year with her oldest son, Sam, her father, and the international nonprofit Christian group World Vision, Steph Smith knows something about people.
"To see, and to talk to mothers who, on a daily basis, have to make a decision whether or not to feed the food that they have to their starving children, or take it themselves because they need food in order to take their anti-retro viral drugs in order to stay well … It’s such a different level of survival and functionality. It’s mind-boggling.
"One of our guides in Zambia told me, ‘We do not live for ourselves.’ I don’t know if we can say that here, in our culture, that we really don’t live for ourselves. In Africa, there’s no wanting to get ahead, there’s no wanting to ‘better ourselves,’ the sense is that they’ve already got it all. …"
As co-organizer of something called Martinis For Mission, Steph Smith knows something about giving.
"A friend of mine and I started it four years ago, where a bunch of women get together to have beverages and raise money for various causes. We spend the night socializing, and (last) Friday night we raised $3,000 for World Vision’s program for bikes in Africa. Bikes change everything there. They’re the main mode of transportation, and they’re changing villages, and communities."
As a Christian, as a citizen of the world, as a human being, Steph Smith knows something about life-changing experiences that go beyond simple "as a" designations.
"Wherever we would go where AIDS and government corruption is destroying communities; malaria, lack of fresh water, lack of education… there was always joy," she says. "There was always singing. We went into this AIDS support group, 30 people, all of them with AIDS, and most of them wearing shirts that said, ‘Positive Living.’ And they were singing these beautiful African chants, and dancing. They were singing about God’s love, and God’s freedom, and that they were getting anti-retro viral drugs.
"Someone on our trip suggested that we have ‘compassionate permanence.’ Meaning that we have the suffering and the pain and the hurt of all those people in our own neighborhoods, in our own communities, and in the world, and that compassion is permanent. We live with that, even though we don’t always see it. Everyday I’m thinking about that."
As a Barack Obama supporter, Steph Smith knows something about hope.
"We had glimpses of Barack Obama over in Kenya. People were wearing his T-shirts," she says. "We met one person from the Luo tribe, and that is Barack’s father’s tribe. We were told by the Kenyans, ‘If Barack Obama wins, we will celebrate more over here than you will.’ And that certainly played true, because they took a national holiday and the president gave everyone the day off this week.
"That was a full-circle cycle for me. After following Obama and what he stands for, and then what this trip stood for, and what it meant to me, and for being a voice for people who don’t have a voice, and for seeing those things that I haven’t seen before — I think Obama is a voice for those types of people and those types of causes in our country.
"I think he gives hope, and frankly, for most Africans, that’s all they can hang on to. For too many years now in this country I think we’ve discounted that feeling of hope, for a better world and a better life, and I think it’s something we can all cling to now."
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.