Tomorrow morning, the Rev. John Smith will deliver an Easter Sunday message from the pulpit at Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Grand Ridge. He’s one of the youth pastors there and also fills in at Deliverance Church of Marianna sometimes.
The holy day is summed up for him in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”(KJV)
It’s a verse he treasures and depends on to see him through his trials. He’s had more than his share of those, especially since Easter of last year.
John 3:16 also inspired the name of Smith’s fruit and vegetable business at 4804 U.S. 90 in Marianna. It’s called JTS, after that biblical verse. “John 3:16” can be seen on the door of his business. His son, Zachariah, painted it there in big blue letters.
Zachary, John says, was a deeply spiritual child from the start.
That aspect of his son’s personality gives him some comfort now. It was almost a year ago that Zach died in an automobile accident. That happened April 26, 2020, just 14 days after Easter that year.
Smith would lose three other loved ones before Easter rolled around again.
About 12 weeks ago, he suffered the loss of a mentor in the gospel, his uncle Tubal Smith, also a farmer and one of the people that provided advice and produce for his business.
About eight weeks ago, he lost a cousin and big-brother figure, Mark Williams, to cancer.
And in between those two, another uncle, Willie Smith, died of cancer.
Those four losses within the space of 12 months might be enough to try the faith of any man.
But Smith draws closer to it in absolute conviction that he will one day in a better place see his son, his uncles, his cousin and his beloved grandfather, Romman Smith, who died in 1999 when John was about 18 years old. His grandfather had helped raise him, was more of a dad than a grandpa. A minister himself, he’d quoted scripture to John nightly from his red Bible, having John bring it to him for that ritual.
John 3:16 was ingrained in his soul at an early age because of those readings.
“He taught me everything I knew,” Smith said of his grandfather. “I lived with him since I was 12 years old...and when I lost him, I was pretty much on my own, trying to find out my place in the world. He always told me to keep God first, to look a man in the eyes, and to never quit anything in life. ‘You’re a Smith,’ he’d say, ‘don’t make a bad name for Smith. Honor me by doing what right and good.’”
He says he’s tried to do that no matter what came. “I stand on the Word of God,” Smith said, adding that he brings his faith into his produce business, his endeavors as a mechanic, and every other area of his life.
“It’s not just selling fruits and vegetables,” Smith said. “You can come by and get a word from God. When my son put John 3:16 up on the wall, he said, ‘Daddy, we can sell Jesus, too.’”
He visits his son’s grave about four times a month. “It’s an inspirational time because his spirit is present,” Smith said. “He’s with the Lord but a part of him is still here because I’m still here.”
The two of them had started his business together a long time ago, almost a decade back. They had a stand under some shade trees very near the structure he now occupies. They sold watermelons, squash and tomatoes in the hottest days of summer.
Some kids might have longed for a more relaxed summer vacation time from school, but Zach told his mom, ‘I’m not quitting on Daddy,’ and kept right on working through that time. He’d been helping his father since he was four years old.
One day a certain customer came by their shade-tree operation. She and Smith got into a conversation about Smith’s hopes for the future. He mentioned that he’d like to be across the street, pointing to the building he’s now in. “She said ‘I know somebody’ and eventually she came back with a key. That was seven years ago,” Smith recalled, saying he felt the hand of Providence was directing that encounter. He prayed for blessings over the space multiple times, walking its perimeter as he prayed, before he moved into it.
He buys produce from many different farmers from here to Plant City, working on consignment with some of those providers and himself harvesting some of what he gets from the more local growers. He also grows a little of his own. He doesn’t have time for much farm-tending with all the responsibilities that go with operating his sales point in every season, but this year he planted a very small patch of potatoes outside the shop and was thrilled to find them thriving on a recent check of his little crop.
It put a smile on his face, and made him think of how much his son would have enjoyed harvesting that prize.
He thinks of him, too, as the Chipola men’s basketball team heads to the state playoffs next week. Smith has been a volunteer assistant coach and a mentor for the team since 1999. He had been tapped to play on the squad himself years ago but that dream was dashed in a serious car crash that left him unable to play.
Zach was also into basketball, having finished his first year of high school ball just before the accident that took his life. His father keeps close the black basketball that he’d bought his son. It’s there at JTS, usually stashed in the folding chair that his son used when he was at JTS, along with Zach’s backpack. John dribbles the basketball sometimes, the rhythm drumming like a heartbeat against the asphalt parking lot.
The steady sound can provide a backdrop of meditative focus for his often-offered prayers. “I have my talks with Him,” Smith said. “Jesus never puts us in a fight unless it’s already fixed and going to be all right. I dig deep. It’s not the load you carry, it’s the way you carry it. I have to stand up with it like a man and keep going forward. I lost my son as a young man. Even though we deal with adversities, you have to roll up your sleeves, put on your boots, and get out there. The world doesn’t owe you anything, you owe it to yourself to get up every day and get out there. My son was out here in the soaking rain with a smile on his face, helping me, in a storm that came up. He was a faithful, honorable child. I have to be a faithful, honorable child to my heavenly Father.”
He and Zach’s mom, LaTanya Smith, and their daughter Jakira Brianna Smith, live in that spirit together. The Smiths just celebrated their 20th anniversary. He said he essentially proposed the night they met, promising her that very evening a life of, not monetary riches, but one in which she would be partnered with a dedicated and hard-working man if she were to choose him.
Their bond continued to deepen as they faced challenges, including Zach’s premature birth and early death. This year on his birthday, just a few weeks ago, they released balloons in celebration of his memory and their church family will do one on the anniversary of his death April 26.
John remembers having an eerie premonition before his son was killed, sensing that something was about to change. He wondered if it was to be his own passing. Sometimes he’d look in the mirror and ask ‘God, is it going to be my time?’ He never dreamed it would be his child going on, but in retrospect recalls that, a few days before Zach’s death, he saw a shade of green glimmer for an instant in his son’s eyes. He believes now that was evidence of an angel entering the scene to escort Zach on to heaven.
It’s a memory that further affirms his belief in God, in the Christ child, and in the promise of John 3:16 this Easter season. He expects it to remain steadfast through every changing season of his life.