AUSTIN, Texas – American teacher Ronnie Smith, who was gunned down during his morning jog near the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, served on staff at Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, Texas, before moving to Libya.
The church is affiliated with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and Acts 29, an independent church planting network. Smith was director of equipping and resources at Austin Stone from 2009-11, and before that he served for two years as a pastoral intern.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for Smith's Dec. 5 murder, but Islamist militants in October had called for the kidnapping of U.S. citizens in Libya. 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.
Grieving friends on opposite sides of the globe remembered Smith, 33, as a devoted teacher, family man and Christian.
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.
"Ronnie and his family moved to Benghazi to teach high school chemistry and to be a blessing to the Libyan people….," a statement from Austin Stone said. "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 past 1,000 years, he would choose Jonathan Edwards because Edwards understood "that God gave us minds for the [sole] purpose of glorifying Him…. As a man of supreme intellect and prestige, he was refreshingly humble and holy."
In recounting his life story on the profile page, Smith wrote, "I was raised in the church from the time I was an infant. It was only by the grace of God that I went through my high school and college years free from the major struggles that many of those I knew dealt with. It was not always sunshine and lollipops but God's hand was always leading me and He brought me to where I am today. I really have no idea when I gave my heart to Christ, I can't pinpoint a date or time, all I know is that the only life I desire is only wholly sourced in Him. Over the last year or so, God has really shown me what it means to exist for Him alone, and that is where I have found my joy and satisfaction."
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," one wrote. 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."
Smith also wrote, "If at the end of the day people look at our church and say that we are hip or cool or trendy then we have failed miserably. If they are challenged to live a life wholly devoted to Christ and His name and His purpose are exalted over our agenda, then I think God will continue to bless us with His Spirit. Our vision must always be God-centered."
Meanwhile, Smith's students in Benghazi may remember him best as the man who once described himself on Twitter as "Libya's best friend."
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Based on a report by Jamie Dean of WORLD News Service.)