This spring, when young men’s fancies are supposed to be turning to love, Herb and Jeanne Smith will be heading to Ethiopia, for the fifth time.
This may seem out of the ordinary for a pair of professors — Herb is the chair of the Philosophy and Religion Department at McPherson College; Jeanne is Professor Emeritus of Teacher Education and English from the same institution — but it’s merely a footnote in a 30-year history of travel for this married couple of 47 years, who’ve visited more than 50 countries.
Of those countries (the current count is 53), in 20, they’ve acted as hosts to students, alumni and others wanting to experience another culture. They’ve returned to many countries more than once. In addition to Ethiopia, they have visit ed China five times, and Italy six times.
“I never dreamed we’d do this,” Herb said of their trips. “We feel incredibly fortunate.”
“Yes,” Jeanne agreed, “And especially whenever we go with a purpose in mind.” The couple have taught in universities in India, Ethiopia, and Japan, and studied at Oxford University in England. In addition to creating real-life experiences for students and others, through their journeys, the Smiths have developed several philanthropic activities.
To Ethiopia, where the couple started two libraries, they take school supplies and Personal Energy Transportation (all-terrain) wheelchairs. The wheelchairs are built and donated by PET-Kansas in Moundridge.
Above a sense of mission, though, the Smiths truly enjoy their visits. In Ethiopia’s Lalibela, “The new Jerusalem of Africa,” as Herb describes it, “there are nine churches carved into the ground, and one in four men is a monk. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. They’re still farming with plows pulled by donkeys. Some of the people have never seen Anglos before.”
Revisiting countries allows the Smiths the vantage point of time. During a 12-year span, they’ve seen China change from a nation on bicycles to a motorized population. In stark contrast to this enthusiastic Westernization is Egypt, where the political climate has turned and the country has “moved much more strongly to the veiling of the women,” Herb said.
One of the most tantalizing destinations is India. It “assaults the senses, intrigues the intellect, inspires the spirit,” Herb said. For the last three years, the Smiths have spent time teaching at Cochin University’s Gujarat School of Theology. Here, seminary students of the Untouchables caste, known as Delits, sit in class in rapt attention for three hours at a time, some under threat of death by family members angered by their conversion from their ancestral Hinduism.
Page 2 of 3 - Smiling, Herb described their walk to the school each morning: “We leave our quarters at 5:30 a.m., walking past about 50 monkeys in the dark jungle.”
Another destination they visit is the Jivandwar Orphanage-Leprosarium, where people afflicted with the disease go to die, leaving their children in the care of a sole elderly priest.
“When we first saw those 72 children, they had no toys,” Jeanne said, “But they had a small boom box. They’d go outside in the evening and play it, and circle dance for hours. We danced for an hour and got tired, but they were so happy and energetic.”
This place, too, became a mission for the Smiths, who have supplied funds to provide toys, school kits and upgraded living quarters.
“The first time we taught at Cochin,” Herb chimed in, “we had 20 students. That was in 1999. We went deep into the jungle, the rain forest, and danced with tribal children, and there were wild elephants.”
On this trip, Herb became deathly ill and was taken to an Indian hospital where he remained for 26 days.
“It was more of a temple than a hospital,” Herb amended, referring to the reverence shown the hospital’s founder.
“Yes,” Jeanne added, “They piped in loud music for five hours each day and the people there chanted the founder’s name.” Jeanne, who remained with Herb, not knowing if he would live or die in this foreign land, has written an as-yet unpublished story about this ordeal, in which she describes the care given to Herb, and how the experience altered her views on theology. “We try to be bigger than God; we limit God by the boundaries with which we define Him. We need to drop the boundaries. This was the profound thing I came home with.”
Most romantic sites
When asked about their most romantic memories of travel, Herb said he thought Machu Picchu, in Peru, with “the driest desert, second highest mountains, and rain forest, is gorgeous.” But this was followed up by a nod to Sri Lanka, where he fondly recalled an elephant preserve overlooking an incredible landscape. “Sri Lanka is known as paradise,” he said. “And that’s about right.”
For the Smiths, travel and working together has enhanced their marriage. “We’re more in love now than ever,” Herb said. “We hold hands all the time, whenever and wherever we can.”
Love at first sight
Jeanne recalled what she thought of Herb when she first met him, as a college student on campus. Her girlfriend realized that Jeanne must be in her cousin, Herb Smith’s, Spanish class.
Page 3 of 3 - Determined to watch to see who responded to that name at roll call, but as yet not having seen him, Jeanne was in a public place and happened to notice a young man walking with his back to her. She noted his “measured steps, like he was confident, he had it together.” Never seeing his face, she thought to herself, “I bet that’s Herb Smith. I’m going to marry him.”
It took Herb another two years to arrive at the same conclusion.