Austin teacher slain in Benghazi mourned yet honored at home church
December 12th, 2013 / By: Bonnie Pritchett | TEXAN Correspondent / comments
AUSTIN—Ronnie Smith and his family moved to Benghazi, Libya, 18 months ago so he could teach chemistry at the International School Benghazi, sensing God's call to be a light in a war-weary land. But on Dec. 5 while jogging, Smith was shot multiple times by perpetrators yet to be captured or claim responsibility for the attack.
Friends, students and fellow teachers in Libya and the U.S. were stunned by the sudden loss. Some despaired at the apparent meaninglessness of the murder while others voiced hope in God's providence.
Ahmed @Criminimed posted on Twitter following the shooting: "He left his wife, his son and his country to come to Libya and help our kids get better education and we rewarded him with [sic] bullet."
The Austin Stone Community Church in Austin in a prepared statement, however, noted: "Although we grieve because we have lost a friend, a husband, and a father, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God has a greater purpose than we can imagine right now." Smith was an Austin Stone member as is his wife Anita.
The church held a private memorial service for Smith on Monday (Dec. 9). Smith served as an associate pastor at Austin Stone for four years prior to the family's move to Libya. But his desire to serve others drew the 33-year-old to share the gospel with an unpredictable yet lovable people.
Smith was alone in Benghazi having sent Anita and their young son Hosea back to the U.S. Nov. 12 to begin the Christmas break. Smith was scheduled to leave Dec. 13 after his students completed semester exams.
Principal Peter Hodge, describing Smith as a beloved teacher and friend of the International School Benghazi, wrote on the ISB website that Smith "supported students in their learning and always had time to help when asked. He was a professional who gave his time freely and without question. We cannot begin to comprehend why this has happened and it is extremely difficult for his students and his colleagues to accept."
Libya's violence left the students "in a state of depression" but Smith was "like a light," wrote Dave Barrett, Austin Stone executive pastor of operations, in an email response to questions from the Southern Baptist TEXAN.
Smith's death focuses attention once again on a region torn by sectarian violence. Four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stephens, were killed in a September 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate roughly six kilometers from ISB. Smith reportedly was jogging near the compound when his assailants shot him and drove away.
On Nov. 8, Smith had written on Twitter: "Bed time. Cue the bombs," referring to the all-too-common sounds of violence.
Three days earlier an unexploded bomb was removed from the Benghazi Medical Center six miles from the school. On Nov. 11 an anti-tank mine was defused in a popular shopping district.
On Nov. 2 when the Rotana Café, popular with women and their children, was blown up, Smith tweeted: "Wanna blow up something harmful? How about those cafes and sheesha [hookah] spots where men spend all night neglecting their kids and wives."
So why would a young father and husband move his family to such a place? Barrett sent The TEXAN a link to Smith's video response. He had obviously given the question plenty of consideration before leaving.
"If there is any single person in the entire universe that you can take a chance on, it's God," Smith said.
Yielding to God's call to go to unfamiliar and potentially dangerous places goes hand-in-hand with a commitment to follow Christ, several Austin pastors told the TEXAN. Though they did not know him, they said his faith was evident in his obedience and his death a cause for reflection.
"God may be calling us to go some places—not places we'd pick to live," said Rod Minor, pastor of Anderson Mills Baptist Church in Austin.
Minor was preparing a sermon on circumstances of Jesus' upbringing as he considered the Smith family's call to Libya. Nazareth was not a pretty place to live, Minor said, noting that Jesus was derided for being from a "less than desirable" town.
"That begs the question, 'Where am I supposed to be? Where is my life going to count?'" Minor said.
The Austin Stone statement answered in part.
"Ultimately, Ronnie's desire to serve others was motivated by his faith in a God that loves the world and calls us to be a part of making the world a better place."
Minor said, acknowledging the risk of sounding trite, that the safest place to be is in the middle of God's will. It may seem absurd to the lost, but it makes Smith's testimony all the more profound, Minor said.
Ryan Rush, pastor of Bannockburn Baptist Church in Austin, said Smith's death hits close to home. And it convicts. Following God's call to Libya—and staying there after the deadly consulate attack last year—should compel Austin Christians to live missionally.
Christians may be at odds with the cultural milieu of an uber-liberal city whose motto is "Keep Austin Weird," Rush said, but churches like Austin Stone are proactively engaging the community, seeking to bless others as a means to an end—sharing the uncompromising Gospel of Christ.
More than one member of the congregation posted video links to Smith's 2010 sermon "The History of Redemption." The 30-minute presentation, all memorized solely from Scripture, outlines God's plan for redeeming his fallen creation and again the words echo a prophetic message of a life lived and laid down for the glory of God.
Smith's Twitter feed reflects a man seemingly nonplussed by the inherent dangers of the community where he lived in Libya but engaged in the lives of his students—if only to lovingly goad them.
The night before Smith's death, @RazanYMR posted to his teacher: "Knowing I'm getting 100% on my sci exam tomorrow makes me soo happy @ISBchem right?"
To which Smith replied Dec. 4: "Yep. I already recorded it. 10%."
Though he developed a good-humored rapport with his students, Smith's motivation for being in Libya was deadly serious.
"But the whole point of Ronnie's life is that there is something worse than death," author John Piper wrote in a Dec. 7 blog titled, "When we send a person to his death."
Smith had noted that one of Piper's messages was significant in leading him to Libya.
Piper wrote: "Ronnie is not the first person who has died doing what I have encouraged them to do. He won't be the last. If I thought death were the worst thing that can happen to a person, I would be overwhelmed with regret."
Piper called on thousands of others to replace Smith not seeking death but the "everlasting joy of the world—including our enemies."
Hodge, in his message to the school's parents, wrote: "We are all saddened and shocked by this tragedy, but we must continue the important task of teaching your children. There is no doubt Mr. Smith would have wanted us to do so."