If you never met Marina Smith, I couldn’t begin to describe what a remarkable lady she was. If you did meet her, you wouldn’t need me to. So many would say, “How on earth did Stephen and James create the Holocaust Centre and Aegis Trust?” Then they’d meet Marina and say, “Ah … now it makes sense.”
A monumental influence on my life, she was a teacher, counsellor, confidant and leader who inspired not just appreciation, affection and respect, but a sense of awe for her closeness to the Divine.
Most of us try to invest whatever love we’re capable of in a relatively small circle; close family and maybe a handful of friends. Beyond that, we tend to invest less, because we find limits to how thin we can spread ourselves. We’ll feel sorry for the colleague having a tough time outside work, but won’t really want them to unload. Because if they did, we wouldn’t have time. Or we wouldn’t understand. Or maybe for once, we’ll go out of our way to really listen and help, but committing the personal bandwidth to be there for them as long as it takes – especially if as long as it takes means for life – is rare.
Mrs Smith, however, didn’t limit that sort of love to a handful of people. In fact, she didn’t limit it at all. Never shallow, insincere or self-promoting, it was deep, real and rich; full of understanding for the individual; full of compassion for the suffering, and full of truth for those who needed to hear it. If you wanted a better idea of someone’s character, you only had to introduce them to her. People who recognised good when they saw it invariably came away with a sense of appreciation.
I’ve had the privilege of experiencing Mrs Smith’s love throughout my life. The love of a mother, it shaped me. Often in the bracket of those who needed to hear home truths, it did me the world of good; they wouldn’t have been delivered with such a combination of love and painful accuracy by anyone else. As Marina’s love extended to Holocaust and genocide survivors with the development of the UK National Holocaust Centre and Aegis Trust, it also opened my eyes to the brokenness of the World and gave me something bigger than myself to support in the work of her sons.
Yet despite the growing scale and depth of her work, Mrs Smith never lacked time for me, and somehow would think of me whenever I needed it most. Very late one evening in April 2019, lying in a Rwandan hotel room far from home and drifting in and out of sleep while battling a fever caused by food poisoning, my phone rang. It was Marina, calling with a sense of purpose and urgency because she had been praying for me and felt I needed a call. “Are you with me, David?” “Yes, Mrs Smith.” Too right I was. I would have been sitting bolt upright if the fever hadn’t been so strong. “We’re going to pray together now.” And then, praying again, she addressed not only my sickness but somehow, with unerring accuracy, each and every challenge and insecurity which lay heavy on my heart at the time. Cutting through the haze of that fever, I felt so deeply and completely understood, loved, and valued; not only by Mrs Smith but as if the Almighty Himself had reached into that hotel room and wrapped me in His love.
It’s a moment uniquely mine to treasure, among so many I could have chosen, but what’s more extraordinary, she brought that level of care to everyone she knew.
Marina was indeed a haven for little boats, including some very storm-tossed in this troubled and violent world. She meant so much to so many, but it’s deeper than that. When I’m true to who I am – to who I really am, in the core of my being – then I’m true to the values she not only taught but lived and demonstrated constantly throughout her life. They weren’t hard, shiny values you could pick up and put down though; they were a spirit. A Divine spirit. One of truth, grace, love, peace, and unity. And so it’s my blessing to count myself one of her spiritual sons.
Marina has many spiritual sons and daughters, some of many decades standing, some much more recent. Across languages, countries and faith traditions, there have been prayers, tears and breaking hearts. We didn’t want our mother to go, and we have all been so privileged to share her with Stephen, James and their entire family. We wanted to continue being able to draw on Mrs Smith’s wisdom in life’s varied challenges, to share our joys and our sorrows with her, to have the security of knowing she is watching over us – and especially over the work for which she laid the foundations – in prayer.
But actually, however painful her departure is for all of us who had the privilege of knowing her (and painful it certainly is), I believe it’s another beginning.
When a mother departs, her children have to grow up. It’s a lonely place to be. Yet when we look inside our hearts, we find precious gifts she planted and nurtured there. Now it’s time for us to more deeply appreciate those gifts; to tend them, and to use them as she used hers, to bring a little more hope and healing in this broken World.
Speaking of gifts, if there’s one thing Marina Smith taught me, it’s the gift of gratitude. That’s why I’m heading straight to marinahsmithfoundation.org from here, to add a monthly gift in thanks for all you did, Mrs Smith. For humanity, yes. But also for me.