Big Brother is watching you

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Image: Holy Cross Brother Roy Smith with students from Holy Trinity High School.

Roy Smith's world revolved around three things: football, basketball, and track. A natural athlete, he excelled in all three sports at the city's Cathedral High School, an institution well known for its academic as well as athletic achievements.

"I remember we used to play sports from sun up to sun down," Smith says of his boyhood days. "And, of course, I dreamed of playing professional football."

That dream wasn't pure pie in the sky. Smith's performance on the gridiron earned him all-state honors as a senior and attracted the attention of recruiters from the University of Louisville and other colleges. But Smith turned down a full-ride football scholarship to follow another, ultimately more fulfilling dream-to make a difference in the lives of young people.

His inspiration came from the Holy Cross brothers who ran Cathedral High School. "I was impressed with the interest the brothers took in me. They were interested in me as a student, an athlete, and a person," Smith says. "Those guys really had an impact on people. I think I identified with them and hoped to have that kind of influence on young people someday."

Holy Cross Brother Roy Smith with students from Holy Trinity HS
Smith shares a laugh with Holy Trinity students.

Forty years later the tables are turned, with young men and women looking to Brother Roy Smith for inspiration. As a school counselor at Chicago's Holy Trinity High School, which serves a diverse population of primarily Hispanic and African American students, Smith has the chance to mentor young people who face the pressures of drugs and gangs, many without the solid family support that Smith was lucky to have.

"I'm convinced the toughest job in the world is being a parent, though it's probably also the most satisfying," he says. "The key thing is relationship. That's what holds kids-that they have the sense that someone is invested in them."

Smith says that's what his students mean when they reassure each other, saying, "I've got your back." When counseling students, he often asks them, "Who likes you? Who cares about you?" Unfortunately, for kids who end up in trouble, the answer is often "no one."

"They just don't have that sense that somebody is there for them," Smith says. "That's what I got from my parents. They were always there for me."

Catholic from the get go

The eighth of nine children, Smith grew up in a pious home where church was as important as family. His parents were both converts to Catholicism, but his mother had a reputation for being "more Catholic than the pope."

"If we had a day off from school, it was Mass, breakfast, and then you could go out and play," says Smith.

He remembers one night when he and his brother had settled in to watch "The Ed Sullivan Show" while his mother and sister went off for evening devotions. "I guess they didn't have any [altar] servers, so my mother drove back, and we had to leave the TV and go up to serve."

Not surprisingly, another Smith sibling also chose religious life. An older sister, Demetria, entered the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa and spent 20 years in Uganda before taking a position with the Society for the Propagation of the Faith for the Indianapolis Archdiocese.

Teaching also runs in the Smith family, with another sister following her mother into the field. Education was highly valued, and the Smith children were sent to the best schools. After his parents' death, the family created an educational fund that awards scholarships to Holy Angels Grade School graduates who wish to attend Catholic high schools. The fund is a fitting tribute to the Smiths, who like many in the African American community, greatly valued a Catholic education.

"Catholic schools have been very significant in the black community," Smith says. "Parents, including black parents, want a good education for their children. For our family, it was important that our faith was nurtured, too."

The cost of a quality education is one of the biggest obstacles faced by the parents of Smith's students at Holy Trinity in Chicago. Their counselor can relate. "We all worked as soon as we could to contribute," says Smith. "We had a family paper route that was passed from kid to kid. But I know my parents made a lot of sacrifices for us."

What do I have to lose?

In the end, his parents' sacrifices paid off. Smith not only got a great education, he also was exposed to the service of the Holy Cross brothers at Cathedral High School. At one point, one of them asked him to consider religious life. "I guess they saw something in me and asked me if I'd be interested in being a brother," he says.

It wasn't the first time he had considered a career other than Super Bowl star. He had long felt drawn to teaching and had briefly thought about the priesthood or religious life while in grade school. "Then I got to high school, and in my junior year I met this girl and we got pretty tight," he recalls.

But when even his football coach encouraged him to pursue the brotherhood, he figured he had nothing to lose by giving it a try. He spent the summer at the order's juniorate in Wisconsin, then his novitiate year at Rolling Prairie, Indiana. Then it was off to St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas to study history and English. During that time, he says, "it just became apparent that this is for me."

His first assignment after taking his vows solidified that he had made the right decision. While teaching at St. Joseph High School in South Bend, Indiana, he lived with a group of retired Holy Cross brothers at Columba Hall at the University of Notre Dame.

"I saw the difference they had made in the lives of young people," Smith says. "And as I looked at these older men, they seemed very happy. I was touched by their faithfulness and prayer."

A solid prayer life-another value Smith "inherited" from his mother-has always been important to him. "Some days it's tough, but it helps me to stay anchored," he says. "You can always go back to the Source and try to start over."

He admires those for whom a consistent prayer life seems simple and admits that he struggles with being faithful to it. "But you just keep at it," he says, then adds: "You know, they say if you begin to feel far to God, it's not that God has moved."

Countering a violent culture

Being able to go to God has helped Smith stay sane as his career moved from the classroom to the counseling room. His first exposure to troubled youth came at age 24 when he was named program director of child care at the St. Charles Boys Home in Milwaukee. "These are guys who stole cars and snatched purses," Smith explains.The master's degree in social work he earned from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee would serve him well in future assignments: first, at Boysville in Clinton, Michigan, another home for troubled young males, and later at Catholic Charities in South Bend, where he worked as a family and school counselor for 12 years. He also did some adoption counseling, as well as refugee resettlement there.

Smith says he knows he's in the right vocation. Although he loves liturgy, he never felt called to preside at the sacraments. "I was always good at counseling couples, but I didn't have an interest in doing their wedding," he says.

At Holy Trinity his counseling skills are in high demand. "Gangs are a real pull," Smith says. "If there's an absence or they feel that lack of connection in their families, they'll go that route. The street kicks in. There's always a struggle for kids' minds and hearts."

Smith says some students at Holy Trinity "have a foot in both worlds," but once within the walls of the school there are clear boundaries, including a strict dress code. "We try to provide them with alternatives and show them that there are different ways of getting what you want," he says. "With drugs, it's quick money but you just end up dead."

Consistent goodness

In addition to being known as Holy Trinity's biggest Bengal Tigers fan (other teachers kid that he bilocates to attend every single sporting event), Smith has earned a reputation as someone who is always there for kids.

Enrique Alvarez, a 17-year-old senior, credits Smith with keeping him in school after his girlfriend got pregnant and his parents kicked him out of the house. The student's part-time job didn't cover his tuition, so he considered dropping out. Smith not only got Alvarez a reduction in tuition, he convinced him that his child would need a parent with a high school diploma.

"I was really confused, but Brother Roy really made me realize a lot things. Now I'm here in school and things are working out," says Alvarez, who plans to attend a trade school after graduation. "He was really there for me. He's always there to help."

Never one to hole up in his office, Smith is constantly checking on his charges, often stopping by just to say hello in the lunchroom or at dismissal. Despite his 6-foot, 3-inch, 250-pound hulking exterior, students can count on his consistent, gentle nature, says school president Philip Smith, who is also a Holy Cross brother. "He is kind of a big brother to these kids. He sincerely loves them, and they know that," says Brother Philip. "That's so important because we deal with so many students who are in crisis all the time. When kids come from dysfunctional families, one of the problems is that adults confuse them. One day they're nice; the next day they're not. Brother Roy is a model of consistency. He's always optimistic and generous, almost to a fault."

The school counselor also provides a positive role model for young African American men. "Roy is the African American male who hasn't abandoned someone," explains Brother Philip, the president. "So often many of our kids don't even know who their dads are."

In addition to his work with young people, Smith has also been involved in leadership for his community and in national organizations. He served as president of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus for two years and on the Holy Cross Brothers' provincial team for six years. "That was really great because I got to see brothers in action," Smith says of his provincial work, which took him all over the country and to Africa. "It was really inspiring to see the work brothers do."

At Holy Trinity, it's Smith who inspires. "He really is a model of what it means to be a brother," says the school president. At 58, he says he is content. "I've thrown my lot in with the Holy Cross Brothers," he says. "And I'd do it all over again. For me, it has been a life of fulfillment and challenge."

Heidi Schlumpf is a free-lance writer and an associate editor at U.S. Catholic in Chicago.




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