Pastor Harding Smith stood beside the pulpit last weekend, helping the community grieve the loss of three young children who died in a north Minneapolis house fire.
Earlier this year, he took on the role of family spokesman as friends and neighbors mourned the death of Barway Collins, a 10-year-old Crystal boy who was killed by his father. When not at the center of a tragedy, Smith can be found on street corners in north Minneapolis demanding an end to gun violence.
He has emerged as a crusading voice in some of the most wrenching tragedies in the community, often soothing a family's grief while at the same time helping a community make sense of what seems like senseless violence and loss.
Smith said his lifetime of personal hardship fuels his desire to bring comfort and healing to those who are suffering.
"God transformed my life," said Smith, 51, founder and head of the Spiritual Church of God in Robbinsdale. "There's no way you can go through all of this, that you can't be a better person."
Smith came to the U.S. in 1988, fleeing torture he said he had endured at the hands of police forces during a coup in his native Liberia. But his problems didn't stay behind in his home country. After coming to the U.S., he suffered periodic bouts of homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness.
"My life was a total disaster. My life, what it was, I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy," Smith said on a recent afternoon. "If you go through homelessness and you go through being beaten by the police … you can see why I do what I do."
Smith has been arrested more than a dozen times since coming to the U.S., mostly for minor traffic offenses, but also for obstruction, theft and domestic assault. The theft and domestic assault charges were later dismissed.
Smith's sudden emergence as a community leader during high-profile tragedies has made him a target for critics who see him as an opportunist who uses the media spotlight to boost the profile of his fledgling ministry.
"The next victim needs to be protected from him," said the Rev. Howard Dotson, whose congregation was also involved in efforts to help Barway's family. "Families need to be protected."
Dotson and others say Smith strong-arms his way to the front of tragedies, quickly cornering the grieving families and then disparaging other leaders who try to help. "He just roams around for his next media bite," Dotson said.
Smith insists that his devotion to struggling families is genuine and that he is deeply committed to bringing healing on the city's North Side. He said many of his most powerful acts get no media attention at all.
In recent years, Smith has shown up at dozens of crime scenes, often clad in a football jersey.
Awards for crime-fighting
Smith has earned recognition for his efforts to deter crime, particularly in troubled neighborhoods in north Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center.
A member of the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office Community Advisory Board, he organized a meeting of local law enforcement officials and community leaders earlier this year aimed at improving relations between police and minority communities. He also organized a prayer vigil for Tommy Bardney, a 34-year-old father of seven, who was gunned down outside his Near North neighborhood home.
Once, Smith went door to door in north Minneapolis to reassure neighbors after the killing of a good Samaritan who had opened his back door to a stranger who claimed he was being chased by men with baseball bats. Several months later, Smith hosted a service to honor the victims of the Ebola epidemic that ravaged the western coast of Africa.
Lately, Smith has become a more forceful defender of his actions, most recently insisting that the fire victims' grandmother was a founding member of his church who personally came to him for help.
"We are not chasing ambulances," he thundered to a chorus of amens from the crowd at a vigil for the fire victims.
Earlier this year, he lashed out at a local TV station for airing a report on criticism of his handling of a memorial fund for the Collins family. In an e-mail to the media, Smith called the story an "attack set up by Lucifer himself" intended to "further promote hate and lies in the African and African-American Community."
The house fire two weeks ago brought new attention to Smith, particularly as authorities revealed that they believe that the mother, Taneisha Stewart, was not home when the fire started. Her children — Latorious, 6, Latoria, 5, and Latorianna, 23 months — died in the blaze that possibly was started by an oven left on to heat the home during a cold spell.
Smith's supporters say his eagerness to jump into perilous family and legal situations makes criticism inevitable, particularly as he has embraced leveraging media attention to help the community grieve.
"I think when you do this work, you need the media for support," said V.J. Smith, founder of the anti-violence group MAD DADS. "So sometimes, we're viewed as being media hungry, but what we're really trying for is to [push for] the same coverage those who don't look like us get."
Smith knows his tactics and his efforts bring detractors, but he is at peace with that.
"Whenever you're trying to do good in the community, there are people that hate your guts," Smith said, before pausing. "If I were such a monster, I don't think that I would be where I am today."
Staff Writer Karen Zamora contributed to this report.