Hours after assailants gunned down American teacher Ronnie Smith during his morning jog near the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Thursday, grieving friends on opposite sides of the globe remembered Smith, 33, as a devoted teacher, family man, and Christian.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for Smith’s murder, but Islamist militants had called for the kidnapping of U.S. citizens in Libya in October. Hospital officials said the teacher had been shot multiple times. His death came 15 months after an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Smith held a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin and had been teaching chemistry at the International School Benghazi for 18 months. His wife, Anita, and their young son had returned to the United States several weeks ago for Christmas break. Smith stayed behind to help his students through midterm exams and had planned to join his family in a few days.
Leaders at the Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, Texas, confirmed Smith was a longtime member. (The Austin church is part of the Acts 29 Network of congregations led by Matt Chandler, another Texas pastor.)
A statement on the Austin Stone website said Smith had served on the church’s staff before moving to Libya: “Ronnie and his family moved to Benghazi to teach high school chemistry and to be a blessing to the Libyan people. … Ronnie’s greatest desire was for peace and prosperity in Libya and for the people of Libya to have the joy of knowing God through Christ.”
A profile of Smith on the church website identified him as a deacon and a native of Michigan who had been married for 10 years. In the profile, Smith listed Minnesota pastor John Piper as his hero because God used Piper to introduce him to the writings of Jonathan Edwards and to teach him “the meaning and the joy of the supremacy of Christ in all things.”
On the same page, Smith said if he could spend an evening with anyone who lived in the last 1,000 years, he would choose Jonathan Edwards because Edwards understood “that God gave us minds for the soul purpose of glorifying Him. … As a man of supreme intellect and prestige, he was refreshingly humble and holy.”
Back in Benghazi, Smith’s students described him as a teacher who inspired and cared about them.
“He was the most amazing person, more like a best friend or family member,” Yomna Zentani, 18, told NBC News. “After everything that happened in Libya, we were losing hope and he was the only one who was supporting us, motivating us. … He dedicated so much of his time for all his students. He chose to come here and help us and risk his life.”
Other students memorialized Smith on Twitter. “He was the best teacher I ever had. Always ready to work, always in a good mood,” wrote one. Another student tweeted that Smith “baked me 2 batches of peanut butter cookies on my birthday and sang happy birthday in arabic.” A Libyan wrote, “Thank you, sir, for believing in our Libyan children when half of their own country had given up on them. #Smith.”
As Smith’s family and friends prepare for his funeral, Smith’s words on his church profile offer a reminder of his desire that “we strive for and treasure Christ above all things. I don’t want the church to be about people, programs, or numbers, but rather a body that reaches out to the hurting and that speaks the truth of the gospel uncompromisingly into people’s lives.”
Meanwhile, Smith’s students in Benghazi may remember him best as the man who once described himself on Twitter as “Libya’s best friend.”