I dare say the godliest man at Southeastern Seminary (SEBTS) went to be with the Lord this week. Mr. Eugene Smith worked for SEBTS’ facilities division for more than 30 years. His work changed over the years, but most knew him for his janitorial services. I met Mr. Eugene in the faculty lounge where he emptied the garbage cans daily. His smile was bigger than his small frame. And his humility mixed with genuine joy of the Lord was contagious. It was impossible to talk to Mr. Eugene without smiling. He loved banana pudding, birthdays, the changing seasons, working outside despite the weather, his family, his church, and his coworkers. And he continued his janitorial services deep into his 80s. He was amazing.
Most would view his life as painfully ordinary. But, it is precisely this ordinariness mixed with decades of faithfulness that renders him deserving of the title hero.
Mr. Eugene was heroic to me for at least three reasons.
Ordinary life is hard, and consistency in loving God and others is exhausting. Yet Mr. Eugene modeled these traits beautifully to a seminary community.
First, his work ethic. Working at SEBTS was Mr. Eugene’s second career. After the furniture store closed in the early 80s where he’d worked for many years, Eugene landed the job at Southeastern. He recalled the kindness the faculty and administration showed him as he began. Dr. Lolley, former SEBTS president, often took Mr. Eugene to breakfast simply to thank him for his work. Eugene never missed an opportunity to say, “I just thank God for giving me a job here,” usually accompanied with a fist pump and ear-to-ear smile. Perhaps most amazing, he didn’t know what the word “retirement” meant for most of his life. In our interview with him, he spoke about how he kept hearing coworkers talk about retirement, and he had to ask them what the word meant. He said not working never occurred to him. “As long as the Lord allows and Southeastern will let me, I’ll go to work.”
Second, his attitude. I once asked the entire facilities division if they had ever heard Mr. Eugene complain or seen him in a bad mood. No one could recall a time. Even after he lost his dear wife who he spoke of with utmost fondness, he quickly returned to work with the faith, hope and love of a super saint. I once told him, “Mr. Eugene, I’ve never met anyone who emptied the trash with such joy.” He just smiled and thanked God for his job.
Third, his humility. Mr. Eugene’s greatness is illustrated most in his humility. By this, I especially mean his humble state of life. He lived in an 800-ish square foot house that he ordered from a Sears catalog some 50 years ago and assembled, himself. In that house, he and his wife raised multiple kids, grandkids and great grandkids, and it never occurred to him to build bigger or buy more. He was content in the right sense. The Lord was his Shepherd, and he wanted nothing more. He never thought to climb the ladder. I suspect he didn’t know there was a ladder to climb. He was simply and genuinely grateful.
I’ve often thought, for many it is easier to die a martyr’s death than to walk faithfully with the Lord for a lifetime. Ordinary life is hard, and consistency in loving God and others is exhausting. Yet Mr. Eugene modeled these traits beautifully to a seminary community. In a place where martyrs and missionaries are rightly venerated for their work and sacrifice and professors are pedestalled for their service, we do well to honor the ordinary men and women who model Christian meekness everyday amidst manual and often unappreciated labor. For this reason, Dr. Walter Strickland and I dedicated our book Every Waking Hour to Mr. Eugene Smith, a hero to both of us.
Maybe, with God’s help, I’ll be like Mr. Eugene when I grow up.