An Interview with Cecilia P. Smith – Baha’i Pioneer in Denmark

On Sunday, December 9th, we went to the annual Christmas party organized by the Danish Sisterhood in Avon. There we met and spoke with Ms. Cecelia P. Smith, who, we found, possessed a warm and delightful personality. 

As it happened, Ms. Smith had lived in Denmark for 13 and a half years from 1961 to 1974. We decided to interview her about her experience and what motivated her to travel abroad and live for so long in a country other than her own.

Ms. Smith told us that she was actually born in Statesville, North Carolina in 1934, but moved to Cleveland around 1943 with her mother and her grandmother to take jobs in our manufacturing sector that was booming due to the war. Because of the move, she was given the opportunity to attend fine public schools. Eventually, she enrolled at Ohio State University; she graduated in 1956 at the age of 22 with a degree in medical technology. After graduation, Ms. Smith worked at Marymount Hospital in charge of the Blood Bank.

Around 1961, she explored and converted to the Baha’i Faith. We ourselves knew very little about this, but Ms. Smith understood and graciously gave us some informative literature which stated that Baha’is believe in:

  • One God and and the unity of religions
  • The oneness of humankind
  • Independent investigation of truth
  • The essential harmony of science and religion
  • Equality of men and women
  • Elimination of prejudice of all kinds
  • Universal compulsory education
  • Spiritual solutions to economic problems
  • A universal auxiliary language
  • Universal peace upheld by a world federation  

Within a few months of joining, she decided to migrate to Denmark as a “Baha’i pioneer.” We looked this term up on Wikipedia and discovered that “a pioneer is a volunteer Baha’i who leaves his or her home to journey to another place (often another country) for the purpose of teaching the Baha’i faith. The act of doing so is termed pioneering. During the Ten Year Crusade, which ran from 1953 to 1963, hundreds of pioneers settled in countries and territories throughout the world, which eventually led to the establishment of 44 new National and Regional Spiritual Assemblies and the increase in the Baha’i population…” In terms of her own personal role in the practice, Ms. Smith told us that she always considered herself to be more of a “proclaimer” than a teacher.  

After she arrived in Denmark in 1962, Ms. Smith settled in Brondbyerne, a suburb of Copenhagen, and found a position as a Technologist in the Laboratory of the hospital in De Gamles By home for the elderly in the Norrebro district. Initially, except for a little German, she knew no language other than English and it took two years of immersion before she felt comfortable having a conversation in Danish.

 With humor, Ms. Smith described occasions when she told people to “make a fist” so blood could be drawn, they often giggled at the way she pronounced or tried to pronounce words. It is a key to Ms. Smith’s personality that when people expressed humor over her attempts at mastering the Danish language, she just laughed along with them and thus helped to diminish cultural barriers. 

To be sure, she found that the Danes were a very accepting people with very little prejudice. While Danes fully accepted her as an African-American woman, her presence certainly stirred-up curiosity (but not controversy) because Denmark, at that time, was a very homogeneous society with very few people of color. Ms. Smith remembered that several articles were, in fact, written about her in local publications. 

In addition to exercises involving the practice of her faith, Ms. Smith became good friends with a  Baha’i family who made sure that she was a part of local cultural celebrations. “I never felt stranded,” said Ms. Smith as she talked about how she made all kinds of friends (some of whom she is still in contact with) and participated in excursions all over Denmark. 

Of course, we asked her about famed Danish children’s author Hans Christian Andersen. Ms. Smith replied that he remains a beacon for visitors from all over the world to come to Denmark; his presence is ever-apparent throughout the entire country, especially in Anderson’s hometown of Odense which she herself visited.

Ms. Smith also considers singing to be a major part of her life and because of this, she received other European travel opportunities due to her involvement in choirs, orchestras, and even got to tour as a soloist accompanied by a guitarist.  

In terms of  specific aspects of Denmark, Ms. Smith told us that at the time she lived there it was mainly a place where raw materials were sent from abroad so that excellent craftspeople could mold them into furniture, porcelain, silver products and furs to be worn. In addition, it had thriving fishing, pork and dairy industries. Indeed, Ms. Smith had her first bowl of yogurt while living abroad.

As for social services, it is true that taxes were quite high but, in turn,  the citizenry’s basic needs were provided for; Ms. Smith felt that the healthcare system there was excellent. 

After having lived in Denmark for two years, she furthered her own career in medicine by accepting a position as an assistant to a biochemist at the Finsen Institute in Copenhagen. where she worked for ten years. The reason that she finally returned home was that a wonderful Baha’i gentleman in the United States, with whom she had stayed in contact, approached her with an offer of marriage which she readily accepted. They were married in Denmark before they returned to the United States together as husband and wife in 1974.

Subsequently, we asked Ms. Smith about what advice would she give to someone considering spending a lengthy period in a foreign land. She said that if one is able to become a part of what is going on around them, then it is possible to have a unique experience that will not be forgotten, particularly if it is possible to put one’s own traditions in the background and become absorbed in the culture in which they are living.

Back in the United States, Ms. Smith ultimately got a great job working in a medical lab in the University Heights area of Cleveland. But she always appreciated the time she spent in Denmark and was readily available to give presentations about the country in local venues while staying in touch with her Danish friends and visiting Denmark on several occasions. About ten years ago, she called the Danish Embassy in Washington, D.C. for instructions on how to apply for Danish pension benefits that she had earned while working in Denmark. Eventually, she obtained them.

She also asked the Embassy workers about  Danish contacts in Cleveland so they put her in touch with Ms. Minna Mortensen of the Danish Sisterhood of America, whose mission is “to strengthen, maintain and preserve the Danish heritage and traditions for future generations.” Ms. Mortensen was pleased to include Ms. Smith in the organization’s membership because she had lived in Denmark and knew more about the country and its customs than most people in the United States (especially the young people) who were of actual Danish descent. 

At this time, Ms. Smith is retired and is now a widow; she misses her beloved husband very much. Yet, she is not one to sit at home alone and is happily engaged in all types of activities such as Tai-Chi (which has its roots in the martial arts but is now more a physical/spiritual exercise); Reiki (which is an alternative medicine called energy healing) and she is still very much a practitioner of the Baha’i Faith, which has brought her an abundance of joy and spiritual comfort over the years.

No doubt about it, she has kept up with her singing and has been a member of the Cecilian Musical Club for over 20 years. She is also a member of the Forest City Singers here in Cleveland. In fact, she recently had a terrific time singing with the group at the Allen Theatre, after which they all got to watch a performance of A Christmas Story.

Just as we were getting ready to end our time together, Ms. Smith took out her smart phone and shared with us some holiday messages in Danish that she had received from her friends in Denmark. 

Above all, Ms. Smith wanted to impart to us her view (which turned out to be similar to ours) that even though the world of today is very much one of political turmoil, she is heartened by the fact that people throughout the world are traveling now more than ever and are open to experiencing cultures other than their own in order to enrich their lives and their understanding.

Of course, precautionary measures must be taken when traveling abroad but Ms. Smith maintained that whatever challenges there are can be countered by the fact that people are always willing to help each other.