A memorial service was held today at the First Presbyterian Church in Englewood, New Jersey, for the Rev. Robert F. Smylie, director emeritus of the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations. Bob, who served God and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at the United Nations for almost 30 years, died on December 19, 2015.
I had the privilege to know Bob as a colleague and a friend. I had the honor to speak today at the service. Here is what I said:
In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul tells the followers of Jesus that we are ambassadors for Christ. All of us. Wherever we may be, we are ambassadors for Christ, sharing the message of reconciliation: God loves us and desires us to love God and love one another. In Christ’s name, we proclaim that message in our words and our living.
For those who have had the privilege to serve God and the church at the United Nations the servant role of ambassador is clear. The Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations represents the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) – represents the Church of Jesus Christ – within the UN community. There we serve as ambassadors for Christ.
In his ministry within the UN community and in his living, Bob Smylie served Jesus Christ and the Presbyterian Church as an ambassador in many ways. Ambassadors play a key role as bridge builders: building and nurturing and paying attention to the relationship between the state and the government they serve and the state and government where they are posted.
Bob went about building bridges with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.
Bob built bridges between faith in Jesus Christ and the global neighborhood. He affirmed the separation of church and state but he knew that our faith in a sovereign God of all of life compels us to engage in public issues—to apply our faith as God enables us to the concerns of the day in our communities and in our country and in that community of nations that is the United Nations. Bob reminded the church and the UN community that the UN was created to pursue peace and security; the church proclaims and pursues God’s concern for peace and justice.
Bob built bridges between theological reflection, ethical analysis, and public policies. He had a gift, a well-honed gift, that allowed him to “synthesize what was going on in the world and look at it through a reformed theological lens” in the words of Sara Lisherness, director of the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries in the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Dean Lewis, who first hired Bob to work for the Presbyterian Church, highlighted Bob’s capacity to articulate a “clear vision of what was needed to move toward solutions from a sound theological foundation.”
Perhaps this came through most clearly in Bob’s work that helped shape the social witness policies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). There he was something of a Triboro bridge builder. He brought togehther current issues, rigorous academic insights, and faithful discipleship to create policies that allowed the church to engage in ministry in the name of Jesus Christ.
For the first part of his career, Bob worked from 475 Riverside Drive and commuted to midtown Manhattan to engage the UN community. When the new Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) moved its national offices to Louisville, Bob was left behind in New York to create what is now the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations. He helped build the bridge between different styles of ministry.
Bob built bridges within the church – strengthening relationships between national level programs, mid-councils, academic institutions, committees, congregations, and individuals. He built bridges with UN programs and agencies and NGOs such as the US Fund for UNICEF. Through his career he built bridges with the U.S. government and Mission to the United Nations. He built bridges with the ecumenical and interfaith community in New York. Within that community he is remembered for his faith and integrity and for his excellence.
Bob built bridges between people of different ages. He was an amazing mentor to those who served as staff or interns. People who learned from Bob about ministry and living as followers of Jesus now serve as ambassadors for Christ within the church and outside the church. Through his engagement with and support of younger people, Bob helped build Christ’s diplomatic corps.
Today give thanks for the life and faith and witness and love of Bob Smylie: child of God, citizen of the world, ambassador for Christ. During the years of violence and oppression in Central America, the church developed a custom to remember those with whom they had shared life. Every time they gathered at table to break bread and share a cup to receive the body of Christ they would call out the names of those saints from their church who had been tortured or murdered by the military death squads. And then as each name was called out, the whole congregation would respond, “Presenté” meaning they are present with us. They are physically gone, but in the wondrous mystery that is the Communion of Saints they share the journey with us. Forever.
The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, where Bob served for some twenty of the years he worked for the church, picked up the custom and began using it during staff meetings and at conferences and other gatherings. Today as family of Bob, colleagues of Bob, and friends of Bob, I invite you to join me.
The Rev. Robert F. Smylie.
Thanks be to God.
See you along the Trail.