Kelly Thornton Smith is the founder of the Center for Living Peace in Irvine, California. She is actively involved in philanthropy locally and beyond and has served on several different community organization boards, including the Orange County Community Foundation Board of Directors. Kelly has two children and strives to be an example of peace and impermanence for them on a daily basis.
Religio Magazine: What were you doing before you started the Center for Living Peace?
Kelly Thornton Smith: Before this I was “Mom” and was on boards of different charitable organizations doing other service work and giving back. And before that I was a salesperson.
RM: How will you be able to tell when all of the people who have come into this center have achieved peace? What does a person of peace look like?
KTS: I think it’s an everyday journey. I don’t think there’s one specific goal. For me, it’s being in that place of acceptance, stillness, joy, living your bliss, and coming back to that in the midst of what’s swirling around you out in the world, and remembering that that’s accessible. […] There’s a lot of gratitude that people have for the classes and the space and just being here.
People didn’t understand at first. They would walk in and say, “Is this a furniture store?” It took a while, but since then I’ve been saying that people are coming out of the spiritual closet—they want to experience something more, and it’s not commonly talked about, but they’re freeing themselves.
RM: In an interview with Coast Magazine, you said that people are hungry for peace. It’s a universal, common desire. Why?
KTS: It’s our natural state. It’s who we are, and the desire is us trying to get back to that natural state of connection and oneness with ourselves. Peace means different things for different people: for moms who can’t feed their kids, food is peace. For people living in war-torn countries, safety is peace.
RM: Did your parents raise you with certain values that could have shaped the way you view the world now?
KTS: Yes, definitely. I had great parents who instilled in me from a very young age to give back, serve others, family, unity, and having fun and taking care of yourself.
My mom was a teacher and my dad worked construction but was president of the local Kiwanis club, which is all about serving the community. They did the Easter egg hunt in our community and had turkeys for Thanksgiving and gift baskets for Christmas, and my dad was always delivering those. […]
They’re wonderful. In fact, yesterday I had too much energy and was very busy, so I decided, “I’m going to go see Mom and Dad.”
RM: How do you instill those same values in your two children?
KTS: You know, I always say my parents never pushed that on me; they just lived it. They were my example. So I just try to be that example and show [my kids] that this is a part of life. This is how we move through the world.
RM: What would you say is your core set of beliefs? Any religious affiliation?
KTS: If I had to choose one, it would be Unitarianism, but for me it would be just acceptance of all faiths. I think they’re all at their core very similar. They’re all about love and the golden rule. I bought a children’s book last night where there’s a grandfather talking to his grandson and he goes through and explains in every faith what the golden rule is. They all say same the same thing in different ways. So I would say I’m open to all faiths based in love.
RM: If I may pick at the Unitarianism, just like you said, within every religion there is a core set of values as well as a direction for betterment both of oneself and of the world. Knowing that, how do you gear your Unitarianism values toward peace? How do you take it into the world?
KTS: I wouldn’t call them Unitarian values probably [chuckle]. I think a lot of people get stuck on those things, like how we’re going to get over the government and wars and corruption and they think it’s too big and things will never change, and they think it’s overwhelming. Well yeah, it is. But the only place to start is right here [points to heart]. What can you change? You can change this. So if you can find peace, joy, stillness, and connection to yourself, you’re going to start that ripple effect in the pond.
In fact, that reminds me of […] Auret Van Heerden. He’s lovely. He was raised in South Africa but when he was in college was during the Apartheid movement. He organized a group of college students to rise up against Apartheid because friends of his were being hurt. He knew it was against the law, he knew he would get thrown in jail, but he did it anyway and he got caught. He got sent off and tortured. […] At a conference I went to, he came up to me and asked, “What is peace to you?” I hadn’t heard his story yet at the time, but I just said my philosophy is to start with yourself, be the change you wish to see in the world, and then my actions will effect change outside of yourself. Then he said to me, “Oh, like when I was tortured.” So he went on to tell me how when his torturers tortured him, he still treated them with respect, compassion, and admiration. They beat him so badly that he swelled up and he was almost dying. Well, one of these guards who had beaten him went out and got him a prescription to help him get better, and so he took it and he got better. He put up with so much torture from these guards. They told him to give up, and he said no. Eventually they sent in a second batch [of torturers], the second batch did the same thing, and they started to love him too. Finally they said, “Auret, we can’t do this to you anymore.” Because he loved them, they loved him. And they set him free and they clapped when he walked away.
RM: Of all the peace advocates alive in the world today, if you could work with one of them, whom would you choose?
KTS: Ooh, that’s a good question. I’ve been honored to work with the ones I have. The one that comes to my head, just because I know and love him and we have so much fun together, is Richard Branson. He’s a mentor and a friend. […] His forward thinking in how we help the planet and the people of the planet, and the fact that’s he’s British with a great accent that I love to pretend I can speak… he would be the one.