Faith in healing: A Chicago physician is as at home in the pulpit as he is in the exam room

Horace E. Smith, MD, is a man of many coats, serving as both a pediatric hematologist and oncologist and a Pentecostal bishop.

By Damon Adams — Posted Dec. 27, 2004

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No pulpit seems big enough to contain the enthusiasm of Horace E. Smith, MD. Dressed in a long, flowing purple robe, the bishop starts preaching behind a lectern in the sanctuary of Apostolic Faith Church on Chicago's South Side. Today's lesson is from the Book of Matthew, Chapter 11. It's about facing life's problems and how God gives rest and peace to his people.

"Trouble does not need an invitation to come to your house," Dr. Smith tells his congregation. "You can feel great right now and tomorrow be in the intensive care unit."

At times, he turns to the red-robed choir seated behind him to emphasize a point. He proclaims "hallelujah" at others, pausing occasionally to dab the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief.

He paces back and forth, walks down the stairs of the pulpit and strolls before the front row of worshipers, punctuating his remarks with "Can I preach?" and holding his hand to one ear to encourage a response. The worshipers offer back "amens" throughout the sermon.

As he preaches, his voice rises and dips like a rollercoaster, and he reminds the faithful that God is in control.

This is how Dr. Smith spends Sunday mornings. Monday, he returns to work as a pediatric hematologist and oncologist and director of the comprehensive sickle cell/thalassemia program at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

Some people believe that God and science don't mix, that faith and medicine are worlds apart. Not Dr. Smith. He moves effortlessly between his roles as physician and pastor, whether he's speaking to parents about their ill child in an exam room or fulfilling his duties as presiding bishop of Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, a 1.5 million-member, predominantly black organization.

His life is a testimony to faith and medicine living in harmony.

"I don't see them as a conflict. As a pastor, as a hematologist, as an oncologist, people put trust in me to help them to make very difficult decisions," said Dr. Smith, 55. "There is this whole movement in medicine now about the issue of faith, that it is not just written off as some kind of mythical dynamic."

Faith in the exam room

Many physicians choose to keep medicine and religion separate. When mixing the two, ethical concerns can arise if doctors force their beliefs on patients or use religion to influence decisions on issues such as birth control. But other doctors view faith as an important tool in the healing process and combine spirituality and medical expertise in patient care.

The medical profession is paying greater attention to the link between good health and spirituality. Research on the topic has been mixed. Some studies have shown that religious people are likely to live longer and have better health than the nonreligious and that prayer reduces stress. However, one review of research on the issue found little evidence that faith impacted cancer and heart disease.

About 12 years ago, only a few medical schools offered courses on spirituality, said Harold G. Koenig, MD, author of many books on religion and health and professor of psychiatry and associate professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina. Now more than 70 medical schools offer such courses, he said.

During colonial times in America, about one in 10 ministers was also a physician, he said. Today, some physicians head houses of worship, though the number is unknown. More common is a doctor whose beliefs come out in practicing medicine.

"Nationally, probably 5% to 10% [of physicians] regularly address spiritual issues with patients," Dr. Koenig said.

Dr. Smith is far from a Bible-thumper in the exam room. He doesn't openly profess his faith or push his beliefs on patients. He goes about the business of practicing medicine. "I don't mention it as a matter of fact, but I let people talk to me about their life and their hopes and their faith," he said. "I've had plenty of families say 'I want him' because they know I'm a pastor."

Jameka Johnson, 19, has been treated by Dr. Smith for sickle cell disease since she was 15. On a recent Monday morning, Dr. Smith sat on a counter in an exam room at Children's Memorial Hospital and reminded Johnson to take her medication. She giggled.

"He's the best doctor I've had yet. He gets on my case when I'm not doing right. He's like a father figure," Johnson said. "I wish I could have him forever."

Some patients have asked Dr. Smith about his pastor role following profiles about him in local newspapers. This sometimes leads to casual conversations about his church.

Johnson said Dr. Smith invited her to church. "I'm going to fool him one day and show up," she said with a smile.

But patients and their parents say Dr. Smith sticks to medical matters when they see him.

During his Monday visit with Joshua Krull, 3, Dr. Smith joked with Joshua about dogs and cats and told him to eat his vegetables at dinner. Joshua's parents didn't know Dr. Smith is a preacher.

"I'd like to see that," father Patrick Krull said.

Life in the church

Dr. Smith's passion for medicine dates to his childhood on Chicago's South Side, when he got interested in science, collected insects and read his older brother's textbooks. "I can remember talking to my mom when I was a little kid about being a doctor. Early on, I thought about how do you do that and how do you make people's lives better," he said.

Reading was an escape from the tough life of public housing.

"We didn't travel a lot as kids, but I traveled in my mind," said Dr. Smith, one of six children whose mother died when he was 10.

Dr. Smith grew up in the Pentecostal church that he now leads and was active in Sunday school and youth activities.

Some church members didn't like the idea of him going to medical school, saying faith was enough to heal. But the church's pastor, Bishop John Holly, encouraged him to enter medicine.

"He was really one of the stalwarts to say to me, 'You go to school and pursue the highest education that you can and just don't deny your faith,' " Dr. Smith said. "He didn't see a conflict in the whole issue of medicine and faith."

With the help of a medical scholarship, Dr. Smith went to the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago. While he was beginning his career as a physician, Dr. Smith was asked by Holly to preach one Sunday in 1979. A few days later, Holly died, and Dr. Smith was considered as his successor. He agreed to be pastor in March 1980.

"I became convinced that God had a plan for me and the church. I saw it as I could probably still do some medicine and handle the church," he said. "Grace allows us the wisdom to discover therapies and cures. So God knows it's an imperfect world and he allows [physicians] the knowledge to learn how to make it better, and that's my job."

The Apostolic Faith Church has grown to about 2,000 families under Dr Smith's leadership. It conducts blood drives and provides pastoral care for the sick and needy. The church also has adopted more than 500 children in Africa who were left orphaned by the AIDS epidemic.

"He likes to say that [faith and medicine] dovetail. We've come a long way as a denomination in terms of realizing that God gave us medicine and physicians," said his wife Susan D. Smith, a pharmacist and mother of their three girls.

Arthur Brazier, pastor of the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago, said: "He's a firm believer in his Christian faith and also a firm believer in medicine."

Having his wife and a church employee manage his schedule helps Dr. Smith juggle his clinical work at the hospital, church duties and workshops on spirituality and medicine. He still squeezes in regular tennis matches with his wife.

Dr. Smith said he doesn't have a lot of patients who attend his church or many congregants who become patients. He has officiated at several funerals of patients.

"There have been persons who I felt, because of my expertise, they needed to see me and they did. Then there are others, who because they know me from the hospital, they become members of our church," he said.

Dr. Smith believes he makes the biggest impact on people by tending to both their spiritual and their medical needs.

"People ask, 'How can you take care of kids with those diseases?' I tell them, whether I'm in this field or not, they're going to be afflicted. At least I have an opportunity to make their life better. To me, medicine is a ministry."

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Horace E. Smith, MD

Age: 55

Personal: Wife, Susan D. Smith. Three children, Lauren, Rachel and Emily.

Professional: Director, Comprehensive Sickle Cell/Thalassemia Program, Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago; instructor of pediatrics, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University; pastor of Apostolic Faith Church in Chicago; presiding bishop of Pentecostal Assemblies of the World.

Medical Degree: University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago

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