In 2023, Rolling Ridge celebrates 75 years of ministry. Every month this year, we plan to share a story reflecting the impact Rolling Ridge has had and is having on people. The Ridge is in the business of transforming lives and helping people find what they need. During Pride month, Michael Reed, our Associate Executive Director, looks at the safe and sacred space Rolling Ridge is for one of our beloved staff members, our Operations Director, Danny Smith, who has been with us for 15 years! If you have a story to share about what you found at the Ridge, please let Michael know.
Danny Smith on Discovering Safe and Sacred Place
By Rev. Michael Reed, Associate Director
On June 1st—and for the first time in his adult life—Danny Smith flew a Pride Flag outside the front door of his New Hampshire home. It might appear to be simply one more rainbow flag to come out in June. For Danny, it was a hugely significant personal victory.
Danny is the Director of Operations at Rolling Ridge. He’s also a gay man, who can remember when times were very different. “For years,” Danny said, “I have not flown this flag out of fear of being physically harmed or having my home trashed.” And with good reason. “I’ve had people drive past and throw trash on my lawn and yell expletives,” Danny says. “I’ve had people hang up the phone just because they heard my voice.” He tells me that the fear of being dismissed and demeaned—‘labeled,’ as he says—stays with him each day. It’s the reason that planting his flag was more than mere symbolism—and the reason that he’s come to work at Rolling Ridge.
The Pride Flag outside Danny's NH home. Photo credit: Danny Smith.
Danny does a little bit of everything at Rolling Ridge, from payroll and finances to graphic design and program registration. The day I first met him, he was sporting thick-rimmed white glasses, earrings studded with gold crosses, and a well-kept beard. Over the past year, we’ve swapped stories in our little back office, and pontificated on how to solve the world’s problems, from gun control to the benefits of immersing oneself in musical theater. But, more than anything else, he’s provided me with a window into his life, and the swirl of complicated emotions and God-sized nudges he’s been receiving the last few months—to speak up, to stand out, to defy the labels, and to help others find their authentic selves, just as he is finding his.
When I sat down with Danny not long ago, I asked him to tell me about what that Pride Flag means to him, and to reflect upon his work at Rolling Ridge over the past fifteen years. There are many rainbow-hued flags emblazoned across New England. But there’s only one with a story like Danny’s.
“I’m here because someone wanted me here,” Danny tells me, referring to how he first started at Rolling Ridge. He tells me that Larry Peacock and Ellen Lewis, Rolling Ridge’s former Executive Director and bookkeeper, respectively, saw something of value in him, even when he thought he didn’t have obvious qualifications for the job. “They were like, ‘This is our guy,’” he told me. “I knew clearly that they weren’t judging me from the start.” He soon found himself running much of the back-end operations of the Ridge, and representing the organization in interactions with various churches, community partners, and guests staying at the retreat house. All the time, that support from Larry and Ellen remained steady—‘this is our guy.’
Judgment has been a major theme of Danny’s experience in church settings. Growing up in church in the 70s and 80s, Danny understood that being gay and Christian was not an option. “By the time I was twenty years old, I had drawn the conclusion that there was no Christian setting where I would be welcomed rather than judged.” He wrote off church all together. It was one more place that asked him to live in fear.
“There’s a fear that exists under your skin—everyday, everywhere,” Danny says. “It can push you into a dark space, where you choose to put your walls up, slam the door, pull back from the world.” When he began working at Rolling Ridge, he felt he had found a kind of oasis. “Once you get a taste of what it feels like not to be labeled—once you recognize a place as a safe haven—why would you want to leave?” He understands the need for a place where people can come without fear. “This is a safe place for all people,” he says. “Where there are no labels or expectations. I’m never afraid here. That’s probably the biggest thing you can say.”
Signs outside the entrance to Rolling Ridge Retreat and Conference Center.
Unfortunately, safe and sacred spaces can’t be taken for granted. Rolling Ridge is part of a larger denomination—the United Methodist Church (UMC)—that isn’t always a haven for LBGTQ+ people. The official lawbook of the denomination defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and prohibits its clergy and facilities from celebrating weddings between couples who aren’t straight. The global church is preparing to split over the issue. It’s the reason that Rolling Ridge—along with the New England Annual Conference (a regional grouping of United Methodist churches across five states in the American Northeast)—has enacted a position of faithful dissent to the denomination’s official policy. We are committed to celebrating the diversity and dignity of the LGBTQ+ community, and to building bridges of understanding about the challenges and struggles they face.
I ask Danny if he sees signs of progress. As an answer, he points to changes, big and small. More and more churches and faith-based organizations are embracing the LGBTQ+ community, and affirming their valued identity as children of God, something that was all but unthinkable in decades past. We talk about the work we’ve been doing Rolling Ridge in the last few years—our partnership with the Reconciling Ministries Network, a movement within the United Methodist Church that advocates for full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the life and ministry of UMC, and our recent “Voices and Stories” event this month with Bishop Peggy Johnson, Bishop of the New England United Methodist Church, and her spouse Rev. Mary Johnson. A record 97 people registered to hear them share passionately and honestly about Bishop Peggy’s ministry, and Rev. Mary’s experience as a trans woman.
Bishop Peggy Johnson (left) and Rev. Mary Johnson (right) at a "Voices and Stories" event at Rolling Ridge.
Yet as we talk, and our conversation touches upon abstract issues and high-profile events, Danny keeps bringing me back to people. For Danny, acceptance and inclusion aren’t simply about slapping on a rainbow sticker, or raising a Pride Flag outside a building—though of course, these things can matter tremendously. Acceptance is something that happens at a human level. It’s something that gets past the surface of things—down past even the fear that lives beneath the skin—to the heart of the matter, where love and understanding reside. “It starts with the staff,” Danny says. “The staff have to radiate love and acceptance, that everyone is a beloved child of God.” He tells me that his fellow staff members, past and present, see and accept all aspects of who he is, not just the parts that are convenient as an employee. Rolling Ridge is more than just a workplace for him; it’s a family, a community, a place to belong.
As we talk, it strikes me that this quest for the authentic self is absolutely central to Rolling Ridge, both in what we do ourselves and what we teach others. The art of deep listening is the act of discovering one’s own authentic self in relationship to others—to see the beauty and complexity of another life, and welcome without fear or judgment another person’s true identity. When people learn to relate to each other at that deeply spiritual level—to be fully known and to know fully—it becomes impossible to label, demean, or hate.
Danny Smith raises a flag for Pride month outside Main Street Congregational Church, UCC, in Amesbury, MA.
As for Danny, he’s finding ways to use his voice and his position to advocate for change and for justice. He feels called to share his story and his perspective with others, especially those who are in positions of influence in the church and in society at large. Just the other week, he raised the Inclusive flag outside of Main Street Congregational United Church of Christ in Amesbury, MA. He's an active congregant of the church, and serves there on staff part-time. No longer does he assume that being gay and being a part church are mutually exclusive—just the opposite.
And he keeps inspiring change in others. In fact, his proudest moment came as a result of overcoming the fear of flying the flag outside his door.
“I posted the picture of my Pride Flag on Facebook,” Danny tells me. Along with the picture, he added a simple message: "So for years I have NOT flown this out of fear of being physically harmed or my home being trashed" and ending with the words: “I have decided to stop letting fear win.” A few days later, a friend posted a reply: “[I] put out a Pride Month Flag on our mailbox today. I have to admit that I harbor a fear that someone might run it over, but if you can be brave, so can I.”
If you’d ask him, Danny Smith would tell you he's especially proud of moments like this: helping people celebrate who they are without fear. He’d say he’s proud to fly a Pride Flag outside his door, as a symbol of his identity and values. He’d say he’s proud to be part of the LGBTQ+ community, and proud to be part of the Rolling Ridge community.
But most of all, if you’d ask him, he’d say he’s proud to be Danny Smith.
Danny Smith is the Director of Operations at Rolling Ridge, and is our longest-serving staff member. He has been part of the team since 2008! We invite you to send him an encouraging message at email@example.com.