Local Pastor Works As U.N. Ambassador for Peace 

By Greg Ritchie

Messenger Reporter

HOUSTON COUNTY – Houston County Pastor Keith Smith was named a United Nations (UN) Ambassador for Peace after his extensive work helping communities from right here in East Texas, to Africa and places beyond. 

Smith, pastor at Tabernacle of Praise (TOP) in Kennard, has been in ministry for 30 years and came to TOP in 2012, leading the church to phenomenal growth. Smith said he has always been interested in helping not only those in and around Houston County, but in parts of the world many might never even visit. 

Smith began the journey to his ambassadorship by teaming up with another church to help build an orphanage in Uganda. An effort like this would usually need to coordinate with a local church or perhaps some government minister, but Smith soon learned getting this project done would mean working with royalty. 

“This was our first time as a church to do something of that nature and on that magnitude,” Smith said. “Uganda still has kings and that particular place is called the Tooro kingdom – and it’s the youngest king in the world, King Oyo. Oyo is 32 years old, the youngest monarch in the world. The Queen Mother had property, so we started building an orphanage.”

Smith’s work has now taken him all over the world and his work in Uganda has been extensive. His desire to help those he does not (and may never) know has led to a global mission from a church in Kennard. 

“There’s needs at home as well and we were actively working on taking care of needs in our little area, but we knew there was a strong need in children, especially in Uganda, because of the refugee camps and the unrest in surrounding countries,” Smith said. “We wanted to expand our global missions and just felt a connection to providing a safe place for children to grow and to be discipled – to be mentored into a life that would be something they can be proud of. That’s kind of how it got started – the desire to have global missions.”

Kennard Pastor Keith Smith (left) with Ugandan King Oyo (center).

Others observing Smith’s work would eventually nominate him to be a UN Ambassador of Peace, seeing the effect the missions were having on children and improving their situation in life. To receive that honor and that title, though, was more involved than Smith may have suspected. He went through a vetting and qualification process, trainings and curricula. It was earlier this year when Smith officially became a UN Ambassador, which the UN itself describes as, “a unique leadership development program to build the capacity of community leaders to promote improved mental health, healing, and resilience within themselves, their communities, and organizations they serve.”

In a conference in Vienna, Austria, a new division was established called the EISDC Division, standing for Energy Infrastructure, Socio-Economic Development and Growth Council. Smith was named the Deputy Director General of the new division.

Tabernacle of Praise (TOP) in Kennard

“It’s a catalyst for emerging countries to connect with either the United Nations or private parties that want to do humanitarian work in emerging countries,” Smith explained. “Private parties would rather do their work through the credibility of an NGO or the United Nations. We were given the mandate to do what we had already begun in Uganda and in the Philippines.”

Smith said it has been amazing to see the work develop, serving as a bridge between the UN and outside groups to actual humanitarian works in areas of the world desperate for assistance. 

For Smith, the whole experience has been a little overwhelming, going from a beloved and successful local pastor to working for the UN to bring good works to those in need. 

“I didn’t wake up one day with the purpose and intention to pursuing an ambassadorship of peace with the UN. When it all began to happen, it was very humbling, because the magnitude of the potential effect we can have or be part of has been very enlightening and rewarding,” Smith said. “And eye opening, because of the magnitude of the accountability. It’s really broadened my perspective from maybe a singular vision to something that’s worldwide.”

Smith noted the people speak English in the region of Uganda where he does the most work and said he always figured to do such great works would take a mountain of time and effort. This experience has taught him the key is more about perspective and a simple desire to make good things happen. 

In spite of the lack of a language barrier, Ugandan culture is different from Houston County, but Smith has been eager to learn and embrace the local culture. He explained the tradition of the Ugandan empaako name, where children are given a praise name or nickname. This cultural sign of love and respect was also given to Smith, who received an empaako of his own from the grateful King, personally. 

Soon to receive a master’s degree in diplomacy from a London university, Smith hasn’t lost his love for his hometown nor the humbleness to understand who is really behind these great deeds. 

“We’re excited and honored that God would reach all the way down to East Texas, Houston County, to a pastor in Kennard and tap him on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, I want you to be instrumental in bridging the gap between some things here.’ So, it’s been exciting.”

In case you were wondering what Smith’s empaako name was, it’s Okaali, pronounced, O-CHA-LI, meant for someone who has high responsibility as a leader. 

“‘O-CHA-LI,’ which is funny,” Smith laughed. “Because every time I say it, it sounds like I am trying to be Italian. ‘O-CHAA-LIII.’”

Greg Ritchie can be reached at [email protected]

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