COLUMBIA — The imam, he’s the one that’s supposed to have all the answers. I thank God for some of the life experiences that I did have because it’s given me the ability to have a little bit of wisdom, not a lot, but a little bit of wisdom in dealing with certain situations.
“I need God in my life. I used to go to church, and I said to myself, ‘If Christianity was going to be what would change my life, it would have already done it. So, I need to do something a little different.’ I accepted Islam in the early ’90s, and I was 14 years old, and I’ve been Muslim ever since.”
Imam Ronald Smith Jr. grew up in Atlantic City, N.J., in what he describes as the typical inner-city lifestyle. Violence, murder and jail marked his childhood, spurring him to seek salvation in his faith and eventually leading him to attend school in Saudi Arabia. With his New Jersey accent, hooded sweatshirt, red baseball hat and full beard, it is easy to see that Smith has merged his American roots with his Islamic faith.
“When I went to school, it was for personal, spiritual growth because the more you learn, the more you know. Because if you don’t know, it’s not possible for you to have faith in something you don’t know about. ... If I don’t talk and teach people what Islam really represents, somebody else will. And that other person may or may not be qualified to talk.”
The importance of being an imam weighs on Smith’s shoulders. Coaxing suicidal people to step away from the edge, counseling spouses in crumbling marriages and urging addicts to get help for substance abuse sometimes take its toll on a man who is only human.
“So, it’s me just trying to live up to the responsibility sometimes. Maybe it should have been something else, but God chose me for it, so I just have to live up to it, because, you know, we don’t choose our own destinies. God chooses them for us.”
Smith believes that everyone has different needs, psychological and emotional. He plans to implement programs to make the Islamic community feel at home and involved in the mosque. By breaking down the community into four age groups, divided by gender, he can isolate problems that each group faces, including teenagers, and draw on his own life experiences to provide perspective.
“I mean, it’s my own experiences in life that allow me to connect with them. I always tell them that ‘There’s nothing you can think of that I haven’t tried.’ The first day I met them, that’s what I said to them. ‘So, let’s get this out in the air, you don’t have to be shy with me, because I already know what y’all do. When you all are not around your parents, and you’re with your homeboys in school, cutting class and hiding out in the bathroom, I already know. I know that because before you were born, I was doing the same thing. That’s just what American kids do.’ So, let’s break the ice, let’s get past that. So, I like to make them feel comfortable that I’m not going to judge them. I’m not going to judge them.”
“Just being perfectly honest, if it wasn’t for my wife doing some of the things she does for me, I wouldn’t be able to do what I did. When I was younger, I almost committed suicide. My wife, who I’m married to today, we weren’t married back then, but she was there. She was the one who actually talked me out of it. So, when I say if it wasn’t for her, there’d be no me, literally, if she wasn’t there that night, only God knows where I would be right now.”
The key to Smith’s success and his ability to help others is the role his wife plays in his life: She is his comfort, his adviser and his love.
“I even told a guy, he wanted to invite me to come give a lecture in Orlando, and I told him, ‘If you invite me, you’re paying for one ticket, you’re gonna have to pay for two because my wife has to come with me.’ I feel like she’s my biggest supporter, and I told her, we were just talking not too long ago, ‘You don’t get the credit that you deserve. I’m in the paper, and people put my name in there, I don’t feel you get the credit you deserve.’”