Preacher Woman

Definitely not the droning Bible reader from your youth: Nancy Smith
Tony Nelson

Nancy Smith is the Antichrist. At least that's what the mustachioed fellow standing on the very top row of risers at the Minneapolis Theater Garage is suggesting very loudly about the woman on stage as he slams his notebook repeatedly against the folding chair beside him.

Moustache face isn't acting, nor is Smith, a slender woman with short dark hair whose sharp black jacket, slacks, and Prada loafers make her seem less like the pastor she is than a denizen of some fashionable hole in the wall. (She does a little bit of that, too, when time allows.) Only the clerical collar gives her away. Sunday Service Live!, her weekly "non-denominational, non-patriarchal, spiritual experience," had been proceeding normally, with Smith explaining that "each of us is God and of God," when dude's cork popped.

"I didn't know what to do," Smith recalls of the event, now a few years in the past. "Here's this guy, about six feet tall, maybe 260 pounds, standing 10 feet above me, seeming like he could easily get violent. My congregation looked utterly terrified. So I just sat on the stage. He calmed down almost immediately."

No one's pounding anything this morning except coffee, despite church pianist S.M. Ponje's opening rendition of Elton John's "Rocket Man." Not that they don't have the option. After taking a few years off from preaching to have a kid, Smith relocated her ministry to the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater, where it's been for the past year or so. Given that Smith's church is the only one in town with a smoking section--not to mention a bar mere feet away--it's surprising that the joint isn't packed with loopy bowlers seeking a little pre-game inspiration. Still, with a flock of 20 souls, she's drawing better than the restaurant or the lanes.

"Today, we're going to talk about forgiveness," Smith begins, leading her flock in a spirited Q&A session that ends with a scenario in which George Bush rams the building with an SUV and renders everyone quadriplegic. As she speaks, she swings one arm in generous arcs. The other grips a chair--this mode of steadying herself is the sole indicator of the MS she was diagnosed with 15 years ago. Apart from the service's general idea and the main reading (today, a passage from the third volume of Neale Donald Walsch's Conversations with God series), everything she does is improvised.

"It's the only way I can keep the services interactive," she notes afterward. "Although I would love to bring a little more structure to the performance aspects. I dream of having a drag queen choir behind me."

The yelling man (who, as it turned out, was from the nutburger Urantia religion) wasn't the first person to take umbrage with Smith's heterodox ways. After earning a master's degree in theology from Harvard, she got booted from a Lutheran seminary. "They told me that I was a danger to the church," she recalls. "At first I was devastated. Then I realized they were right. I felt good about that." After taking time off for marriage and an extended sojourn through Asia, where her adventures included a scary, passport-free visit to Indonesia and a narrow escape from a hitman while riding a motorcycle in Taiwan, she came back to Minneapolis, established herself as an independent counselor, and began her ministry.

"God, I wish I could dance around up there," she says, adding that she believes one day she'll be completely cured of her MS. She lights a cigarette, grabs her cane, and heads out to the bar. Clearly, this is a person who loves her work.

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