The Rev. Hugh W. Smith, 81, retired director of public relations for International Ministries of the American Baptist Churches USA who served as a missionary in Hong Kong for nearly 20 years, died of an apparent heart attack Dec. 15 at Elm Terrace Gardens, a retirement community in Lansdale.

Mr. Smith's decision to trade pastoring churches for missionary work may have had something to do with a chance meeting with a homeless man in a coffee shop.

Mr. Smith, then a recently discharged World War II veteran working for the telephone company, was in the midst of considering a call to the ministry. He sat and chatted with the homeless man, and bought him coffee and a doughnut. Afterward, the man told Mr. Smith that he should be a missionary.

Unbeknownst to the man, faith had long been central to Mr. Smith's life. He had grown up one of nine children raised in the Stoughton Street Baptist Church in Dorchester, Mass., singing in the choir, active in the youth group, and later marrying the pastor's daughter.

When he returned from service in the Navy, he earned a bachelor's degree in theology from Gordon College and a graduate degree in divinity from Andover-Newton Theological School. He was ordained in 1957.

Mr. Smith was serving as pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Providence, R.I., when he traded his pastorship for work as a missionary for the American Baptist Churches. He moved to Hong Kong in 1958 with his wife, Ann.

The couple worked largely among Chinese who spoke the Swatow dialect, a group with whom the denomination had a long history. Mr. Smith became fluent and helped to provide aid during tumultuous times in China, including the hardship that followed the Great Leap Forward.

In 1975, Mr. Smith and his family moved to the Philadelphia area so that he could take a post as director of public relations for international ministries for the Valley Forge-based denomination. He traveled to more than 30 countries telling the stories of missionaries whose experiences mirrored his own. He retired in 1992.

In addition to his wife of 54 years, Mr. Smith is survived by sons Stephen and Timothy; daughters Jennifer A. Beers and Karen; two sisters; two brothers; and four grandchildren.

A memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Jan. 17 at New Britain Baptist Church, Route 202 and Tamenend Avenue, New Britain.

Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com

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