Leather-Clad Preacher to Outlaws: The John Smith Interview (1942-2019)
John Smith, legendary Australian minister, commentator, activist and founder of the God’s Squad Motorcycle Club has died after a long battle with cancer. He addressed the United Nations, nearly faced execution in the Philippines, founded numerous charities and spent much of his life with outlaws and the marginalised, but in his early years was anything but the radical. In this Open House interview I recorded with him in 2007, you’ll hear how the once buttoned-up youth became a leather-clad preacher of peace.
A Personal Note
This is a special interview for me, not least because I got to speak to a true hero of the faith. But I have an even better memory of a more recent conversation. Having read Resurrection Year, John called me one day before writing this moving endorsement of the book. There was a note of sadness in his voice as we spoke because, as he would write, having once preached to thousands at a time and seen God’s Squad spread around the globe:
… this success has been punctuated by grief: a destructive church split, my dismissal as ministry founder by my own organisational board, and an invasion by the big C (cancer) into my life during my PhD studies. I’ve had promising prophecies from charismatic preachers about being healed. All the members of U2 even laid hands on me and prayed. I was healed of terminal heart disease through prayer decades ago, so why have I had no deliverance from cancer now?
And yet, right to the end, John Smith was a man of rugged hope, born from his radical commitment to and love for Jesus of Nazareth. As I think much these days of how we are shaped, what makes for a ‘good life’ and who we can become when things go wrong, I can’t think of a more powerful witness to all of this than John Smith.
Thank you, John. We will be following your lead for generations to come.
You were a fairly conservative lad in your early days, weren’t you?
I was off the wall, mate. As a young guy I once went to preach in Mt Isa where I met a group called the Cross Country Singers. They sang lyrics like ‘On the wings of a snow white dove’ and back then even that sounded worldly to me! I grew up in a situation where cards, pool tables, motorcycles and dancing were all considered evil and part of an ill-spent youth. At one stage I was so pro the Vietnam war that I actually said America should drop limited atomic bombs on North Vietnam and turn it into a landing field for B52 bombers so they could resist the creeping peril of yellow communism in East Asia. I held a white South African view of race, believing that the blacks were cursed of God and to be the subservient race to the whites—all that sort of stuff.
It was an incredible thing that within ten years I was an activist for equality without throwing in the Christian faith.
Sacked for Going to the ‘Wrong’ Places
Coming out of such a conservative background, I went through a dramatic change. It was that revolutionary period at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s. I was a late starter in a sense—I discovered the Beatles the year they split up—but really got into it after that. My wife and I felt called to attend the Sunbury Pop Festival. It ended up costing me my job as a nice young preacher. I got sacked because the church thought there would be nudity and dope smoking, and that wasn’t a suitable place for a young preacher to be. I thought that was the very place a young preacher should be to learn what’s going on in the world, to be able to engage in conversation about it, and to have a compassion for a generation that really felt lost and uncertain about the past and the future.
We trotted off to Sunbury. It was bigger for Australia than Woodstock was for America in terms of the percentage of the population attending. One of the things I wrote in my autobiography was my reaction to Billy Thorpe singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’. He had gotten the whole crowd shouting obscenities. These days you hardly see a movie where the magic words aren’t found, but in those days that was pretty over the top. Billy was screaming obscenities, and all of a sudden in the midst of this angry high-volume music, he suddenly went into this almost mystical singing of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’. There were people all around with tears running down their faces. It was like a psychic wave of longing that went across that huge crowd from a generation that was longing to find something better.
After Sunbury we came home and found that the church had given us twenty-four hours notice and three months pay. I came home from the church office and Glena and I just stood around the sink and cried. Then we prayed. Some people who don’t understand the religious thing are going to think the next bit is kooky, but it’s true.
A Little Miracle
I had started a Jesus newspaper that grew to about 35,000 copies circulation each month. It was a twelve or sixteen-page tabloid that was first called Truth and later, Truth and Liberation. We’d just started putting that out and were getting phone calls and letters from young people that were sick of the system, both in and out of the church. We were standing around the sink, wondering how we were going to pay our mortgage, how we were going to survive with three little children, and how we were going to pay for the next edition of the paper. Glena said, ‘You just need to go ahead with printing it and trust God.’ I said, ‘Where are we going to get the money from?’ She said, ‘Just send it off to the printers and we will trust.’
When I got back she was all smiles. A letter had come in the mail. ‘I’ve been scared to open this envelope,’ Glena said, ‘because I don’t know how much money is in it.’ Inside was a cheque and a bunch of notes from a uni student in South Australia. And it was precisely the amount that it cost to republish the next edition of the magazine. I mean, this person didn’t know that I’d been given the boot, and we didn’t even know what the printing cost was going to be, but it was exact.
I know there are some who are cynical about Christians—and I think some Christians do carry on. But there are times when these kinds of events happen and there is no explanation that makes any sense, except that somehow God intervened in the real world.
That’s the way we started. From then on we said, ‘Well, Jesus was a friend of publicans, sinners and other outcasts; he hung out with the wrong crowd and that was probably one of the reasons he got crucified. So what will we do?’ I started hanging around pool rooms and places like that.
Called to the Bikers
I had seen some bikers on the side of the road, just drinking their beer and fixing up their bikes. And I said, ‘Dear God, please do something for these guys.’ And God said to me, as best as I understand it, ‘Why don’t you answer your own prayer?’ Around the same time I met a guy who would’ve been England’s equivalent to Evel Knievel. His name was Eddie Pye. He’d been a top stunt rider and had become a Christian. Eddie said, ‘Smithy, you’ve got the ear of young people. Get out there on a motorcycle and that will help your cause.’ So a whole bunch of events like that all came together and seemed to be saying, ‘Go do it.’ So we did.
Of course, God’s Squad has been through its troubles. Bikers tend to be radically individualistic and a bit ego driven. It’s been a struggle sometimes to make sure that people don’t play an ego game with it. But now we’re in Norway, Finland, the Ukraine, Holland, Germany, Ireland, England, Wales, all over Australia. One of our guys in Holland used to be a debt collector for the Mafia in Italy. His family broke up because his wife was terrified of what was going on. He was led to the Lord by some Christian bikers and today he’s back with his wife and riding with our guys. It is really amazing where it has gone from those early days.
John, with all of these years riding with bikers, what one thing have you learned?
I would want to say that one size does not fit all. This week in the newspapers there’s been another big thing about crime and the biker scene. I’m not saying that stuff doesn’t happen. But there are some clubs that are just like Rebel Without a Cause, you know, the James Dean thing—blokes that say the system’s stuffed, we don’t want to have anything to do with it, we just want to be blokes on our bikes. There are others where individual members may be playing with drugs but the club overall wouldn’t do that kind of stuff. Then there are some clubs that are pretty hardcore, involved in the international drug scene and so on.
But you cannot judge a book by its cover. That is one of the biggest things I’ve learned. And that’s a Bible thing—both in the Old Testament, in Moses’ writings, and also in the writings about Jesus in the gospels, it says, ‘Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.’ Working in this scene has led me to meet some of the most beautiful people who look like the wildest people you could ever see. Some of the guys who look the most outlaw love their kids, love their wives and are just the most true blue mates. In fact, honestly—and it’s a terrible thing to say—but I have seen outlaws who are now sixty-plus years of age at funerals of their mates who frankly show a broken-heartedness and a connectedness to their mates that I rarely see even in church.
You’re turning sixty-five this year . That’s got to be reason enough to have a mid-life evaluation of sorts. What has been the most significant moment for you—the moment that has proved to be the unexpected turning point you never would have seen at the time?
Well, one of them comes before I started down this wild path. I had some friends who were working with street kids in the inner city of Melbourne, many years ago in the 1960s. I went to see what they were doing. At that time I was at Bible college and I was dressed in a suit with a tie. I had no idea of that world and these guys introduced me to some of these gang kids. One of them looked at me and said, ‘If you answer one question I might talk to you.’ I was a Bible student and felt I would be able to give this kid on the street a good answer. He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘What is God like?’ And without thinking what that kid’s background was I said, ‘God is like a father, son.’ His eyes blazed with hate and he said, ‘If he’s anything like my so and so’—you can guess the words—‘old man, you can shove him up your jumper.’ Then he stormed off into the night.
I felt a little bit offended. I thought, I’m trying to be nice to this kid and he’s walked away from me. The youth worker asked me what I’d said, and I told him I’d said that God was like a father. He said, ‘That was real smart, Smithy. Do you know anything about that kid’s father?’ I said that of course I didn’t. And he replied, ‘Well, his father is a sexual abuser of his girls and his family, he’s a drunkard, he beats him up and this kid is the only thing standing between this man and the death almost of his mother and his sisters. And you told him that God is like that.’ Sometimes we come with our religious data and we do the tip truck thing and dump our theology on people. That was one of the most important moments for me.
A second important moment—and, you know, I get nervous sharing this because I don’t want to sound like I’m some brave guy, because actually I’m a scaredy cat underneath—it was years ago while my wife and I were in the Philippines. We were at the World Congress on Evangelism, and this message came through saying if some of us delegates would come to Negros, we might be able to save a thousand people’s lives. They had been warned over the radio that these death squad guys were coming in to wipe out nearly eight hundred refugees that had fled from the mountains when the government went in and dropped napalm on the farms to get rid of a handful of communists. They were about to come into this Catholic seminary and wipe everyone out. At about five o’clock in the morning my wife said to me, ‘John, God has told me to go to Negros and stand between these people and death.’ She was braver than me because where she was going looked very, very dangerous.
I then got a telegram from Mindanao. A mad mayor there, whose motto was ‘Kill a communist for Jesus’, had gone in and bulldozed down the homes of peasant people in a search for Japanese gold they assumed was left there in the last World War. We got invited by the people to go and monitor this human rights violation, and I felt that God wanted me there. So we wrapped up some little parcels for our children back in Australia, who were teenagers then. We wrapped them up and we hugged each other and cried . . .
. . . we didn’t expect that both of us would come back. We thought one of us would probably die. So we put these little parcel things together for the kids and wrote a letter to them in case one of us didn’t come back
Then we set off—Glena to Negros and me to Mindanao. When I arrived there they had the bulldozers bulldozing down the homes. There were women and children running everywhere in terror, with these guys with M16 guns all over the place. My co-pastor and I just went ballistic—we jumped on one of the tractors and ripped all the wires out and stopped it. Then we got arrested and carted off to prison. They told us we would be executed the next day.
That night they interrogated us every hour or so. They would quote Bible verses and say, ‘Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Tell us the truth: who brought you in here? Then we will set you free.’ That was a big test. There were about fifty people jammed into a cell the size of a small lounge room. Our only toilet facility was a can with part of the side cut out hanging from a string. We were laying head to toe on the floor to sleep. I’m lying there looking at these little white gecko lizards running across the roof thinking that I liked them more than human beings.
Do I Really Believe This?
But that night I had to decide whether I really meant what I’d always preached. Because the temptation came—tell them a few names of the civil rights workers that brought you in; they’re not going to know that you cheated on them; you might get free. My mate and I had to lay down that night and decide whether we really believed what we thought we believed—whether we really did believe there was a life to come, whether we really did believe that if we died there was a better life on the other side, whether we believed that it was better to die with dignity and commitment to truth than it was to save your life and live with what you knew was cowardice. We stuck to it and it looked like we were going to be executed. Some members of the UN came in and tried to talk to the mayor. They visited us and said, ‘Look, there is nothing we can do. It looks like you are gone.’
And I must admit to having a certain incredible peace. It changed something in me. When I watch Christians conforming to the stock exchange, preaching prosperity doctrine and stuff, I feel sick now because I know what it is to face death and say: ‘I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold/I’d rather have him than riches untold/I’d rather have Jesus than anything this world affords today.’ If you’re not a Christian and you hear this you will think that I’m completely crazy, but it is something . . . you see it in Mother Teresa, you see it in much greater people than Glena and I—it is something that is so much bigger, so much more fantastically human, something so precious and great that goes beyond all this materialistic stuff.
Dear old Glena—she was on Negros and they had a conference with all these television cameras and everything because they actually stopped the massacre there. The death squads moved out of town and these mostly women and children were saved through the actions of Glena, another woman from New York and an Australian Uniting Church minister. One of the journalists said to Glena, ‘Do you know that your husband is on the island of Mindanao and that he is awaiting execution?’ And she replied, ‘Praise the Lord!’ They looked at her like she was a complete nut. Then she said, ‘I don’t mean that I’m glad that he’s in danger. I just feel so good that he stood by what he believes. He has always preached this stuff to everybody and now he’s living it.’
Unconditional, Indiscriminative Love
Glena was overjoyed that you were living what you were preaching, and really that comes back to the person of Jesus. I’d like to end on this—what characteristic of Jesus most captivates you these days?
Ah, his unconditional and indiscriminative love. That is the most powerful thing.
Saint Paul said that faith, hope and love are the three things we need. I know so many people who have committed suicide. They were loved by their parents or by their friends, but they didn’t feel any hope and so they still took their lives. So it’s not only love that we need. We need a faith to live by—something that makes solid sense of life with all its pain and struggles. We need a hope in something bigger than ourselves. And above all else we need love, because Paul said you need those three, ‘but the greatest of these is love’.
When I was a little kid we used to sing a song that said, ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’ I still feel like crying when I hear that little song, because the love of human beings isn’t big enough. I saw people who came to Jesus at the end of the ’60s and the beginning of the ’70s because they were suicidal over the splitting up of the Beatles. A lot of the hippies that really loved the Beatles were devastated when these guys broke up, saying nasty things about each other, because they’d been the ones that said, ‘Love, love, love—All you need is love’, and it hadn’t worked out.
I find something enduring and robust and different about the divine love that comes from Jesus. It’s the greatest of all loves and it transforms your life—it transforms your attitude towards others and even towards things.
On the Side of the Angels by John Smith (one of the most moving biographies I’ve read)
Open House Volume 1 by Sheridan Voysey (from which this transcript was taken)