GREENFIELD — Gary Smiddy left his hometown of Greenfield in 1978 and moved across the country.
For a while, it seemed he’d gotten what he wanted out of the move — a successful sales career. But eventually, Arizona would become just the launching pad for a life in Kenya.
Smiddy went to Greenfield High School in the early 1960s. He played sports, was a quick study at Spanish and was the kid in the group who was always willing to eat something weird.
“I was always the guy who would eat the raw fish,” he recalled.
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After serving in the military during Vietnam, he moved west in 1978 with Jean, his wife and high school sweetheart. During those years in Arizona, they became involved in a church, and “it led Gary into a complete life change,” said David Woods, senior minister of Park Chapel Christian Church in Greenfield.
That change landed Smiddy back in school, where he majored in education and Bible. In 1981, during his last year of school, he went to Kenya with a group. Three months later, he and Jean went back for good.
In those early days, they lived in a village. Smiddy often saw buildings fashioned from banana leaf, mud and sticks. Woods said he remembers stories about carrying water and purifying it and about the couple using a car battery to power a radio; “it gave them their Friday night entertainment.”
Smiddy had aptitudes that were useful in the mission field. His wide palate came in handy for adapting to Kenyan cuisine, and he was picking up Swahili instead of Spanish. He played golf, met businessmen and made close friends.
“The thing that impressed me about Gary was that he learned the language,” Woods said when recalling his own first trip to see the Smiddys in Kenya.
Park Chapel was interested in supporting the Smiddys, and the minister went to see their work for himself.
That work had been shaped by Smiddy’s early years in Kenya. He had seen schools in which malnourished children were crammed into small classrooms. And he began to see how to proceed.
What Smiddy realized, he said, was that Crossroads Fellowship Ministries needed a place in the city. So he rented a storefront in the second-largest city, Mombasa.
The original site of the Crossroads church had seats for 39 people. The congregation soon grew until it needed the storefront next door, too.
“We ended up occupying the entire place,” Smiddy said.
The worshipers who filled the space were a diverse group. The group included a family from Asia whose members converted to Christianity while living in Kenya and had to go underground when they returned to their home country.
It included people from Muslim backgrounds; he said one man’s father made him eat from the dog dish after learning of his son’s conversion.
It’s a decision that “could lead to death and expulsion,” Smiddy said. “Being baptized publicly is a big deal.”
The possible challenges for that early congregation were not limited to hostility toward its faith.
There was also the potential for division among Kenyans of the different major tribes in the country, Smiddy said, or between rich and poor, as he said there is virtually no middle class.
But, he said, at Crossroads different groups of people sat next to each other, worshiped together and served on committees together.
The multi-ethnic church became a hub for establishing more churches farther out from the city, churches that sprang from first meeting practical needs.
“With all of our churches, we also build a feeding center,” Smiddy said.
A pattern was established: Talk to the chief of the area, share the hope to build a school and feeding center for the children of the community and seek permission to get started.
Children receive food, medical checkups, school uniforms and an education. Sponsors pay $30 a month to provide that for each child. Woods said Park Chapel members sponsor more than 200 children.
Vicki Smith and her husband are among those sponsors. They traveled to Kenya in June 2011 and met the little girl they sponsor; they have since begun sponsoring her older sister, who had lost her sponsor.
Smith called that trip “life-changing.” After she returned, she joined Park Chapel’s mission team and became part of a team promoting child sponsorship.
There are impressions from the trip that linger in her mind: Riding by in a van past a young woman on top of a garbage heap, digging through it. Little children in a church service who kept managing to scoot over and squeeze one more child, and then one more, onto a bench.
Amid it all, there was the realization of “the impact that we can have on a child’s life,” Smith said.
That difference has been made in multiple communities. Talk to any of the local people who’ve visited Kenya, and they’ll talk about visiting a school or church in another area, such as Injili or Kilifi. The Smiddys have partnered with Jim and Susie Horne of Operation Give Hope and Bobby and Lisa Bechtel of the Hope Foundation to feed children, dig wells, establish schools, train pastors and plant churches, churches that are sending out missionaries beyond Kenya.
“It just seems to me … that when they give their heart to Jesus, they totally give everything,” Claudean Korff said.
She’s another Park Chapel member who sponsors a child and has traveled to Kenya, having gone in 2005 and 2006.
Korff remembers seeing the original Crossroads storefront and compares its size to her reception area at Park Chapel. By the time she went, the church had outgrown the site entirely and was worshiping under a large tent.
During the 2006 trip, she saw the new Crossroads Fellowship church building was under construction.
Park Chapel helped Crossroads buy the land and paid for much of the building. Woods later visited the finished project.
“It knocked our socks off by what we saw,” he said.
Woods would later preach to 700 to 800 people at one of the church’s anniversary services.
The congregation has since surpassed 1,200 in the church’s three weekly services — two on Sunday and one on Tuesday.
Woods said the Crossroads Fellowship church is part of a meaningful legacy.
“He has done a marvelous work,” Woods said of Smiddy. “What (he and Jean) have gone out and done is remarkable.”