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Forgiveness ‘through tears’: widow of Christian slain in Libya shares struggle

Anita Smith, who lost her husband to a 2013 terrorism attack in Benghazi, Libya, says she is able to forgive the gunmen who killed her husband because she takes her grief and anger to God. (Baptist Press/Brandon Porter)

BENGHAZI, Libya (BP) — Ronnie and Anita Smith had the blessing of Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, Texas, when they embarked on a mission to spread agape love in Benghazi amid rising terrorism from Islamic extremists.

He would teach chemistry at the International School in Benghazi as Anita cared for their infant son, Hosea, and made cross-cultural friendships. Anita and Hosea had returned to the U.S. ahead of Ronnie for Christmas in 2013 when her commitment to the love Jesus commands was sorely tested.

As Ronnie jogged on a street not far from the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, the site of the 2012 terrorist attack by Ansar al-Sharia, gunmen approached in a black jeep and shot Ronnie dead.

Anita extended forgiveness to the murderers just days later in interviews widely broadcast in Arabic in the country where the faith of most encourages retribution over forgiveness.

“I wanted to show them that Jesus calls me to forgive you, and even Ronnie would have wanted that,” Anita told Baptist Press nearly 10 years after Ronnie’s death. “Something that was very apparent was what do we want the Libyan people to see or know out of this. Something that Jesus always offers is forgiveness, and even on a bigger degree is forgiving your enemies.”

When her commitment to forgiveness falters, Anita copes by questioning God instead of the attackers.

“And that’s where I get just those twisted, hurtful emotions with God, asking Him well why come it had to be this way for us, and not for so-and-so. And I know I won’t have the answers, but a big part of it is obedience,” Anita said. “But the hurt and the anger over the days and the years, even up to today, I feel like it’s with God.

“I have my low times and medium times — I don’t know if I have high times — but just I guess as the years pass and I still, I wonder well what if there was a different route for us. I’m praying sometimes, not even knowing what words to use, but it’s just through tears, like wanting him back. As I see my son and he wasn’t raised by him, and we miss him very much.”

God mostly tells her to trust Him, she said, and assures her of His care and provision.

“It is comforting at times where it’s more powerful,” she said. “And sometimes it’s just more silent and blank, where it doesn’t feel as comforting. But I think that’s probably normal with any kind of pain and suffering. It’s not OK, but it’s just a process of trusting God and trying to believe that, and know that, He understands.”

Anita references Hebrews 4:14, that Jesus is our High Priest who knows our weaknesses and sympathizes with us.

“He knows our pain, and His love is very raw and real,” she said. “It’s not this faraway God. I try to remember, when I’m trying to trust Him, to remember He understands. He really does care for the widow and my son really isn’t an orphan, but those go hand in hand.”

She finds additional strength in remembering Jesus’ words on the cross when He pled with God to forgive those crucifying Him because they didn’t know what they were doing.

“I think when I was able to say that I forgive the attackers, they don’t know really to a bigger degree what they’re doing — yes, they know that they were shooting a gun — but I was able to forgive them because it wasn’t a personal thing against me,” she said. “It’s not like they knew who I was, so I was extremely hurt and torn and shocked and sad and mortified, all those emotions. It wasn’t that none of that was there, but they don’t know they did this against Anita Smith.”

She continues to reap a harvest from her public forgiveness, Anita said.

“Fortunately I have heard of a few Libyans who have heard what happened and have become a Christian, maybe two just today and maybe one or two previously,” she said. “I don’t know them personally, but maybe a story from this person who was really inspired by what he saw on the media, but sometimes I’m like is it really going to make a difference? And I know it is, even when I’m not around.

“But it’s just struggling that, the gratification of having my husband here versus not, for the sake of the Gospel,” she said, “(and not knowing) the fruit of that.”

Anita is now part of a blended family, having remarried about 18 months ago, and lives in Michigan with her new husband Richard, her 11-year-old son Hosea and Richard’s 10-year-old daughter Natalie. She fellowshipped with Austin Stone church until relocating to Michigan in 2018 to live near her mother and sister.

“It’s a different kind of beauty,” she says of her new life, alluding to Isaiah 61:3. “I’m blessed with … a great guy. It’s not that I would change things, it’s just still different. It’s a different life stage. … We’re still adjusting.”