Sunday, March 27, 2005

Ashley Smith’s Challenging Witness To The Risen Christ

Ashley Smith

(Easter 2005: This homily was given on March 27, 2005 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Easter 2005]

You’ve just come back from the store, and you park your car, as usual, in front of your apartment building.

As you’re getting out of your vehicle, a man suddenly approaches, holding a gun and looking desperate. He sticks the gun in your side, threatens you, and then orders you to take him to your apartment—immediately!

When you’re both inside and he takes off his hat, you recognize him as the man who allegedly killed four people in cold blood within the previous 24 hours.

What would you do in circumstances like those? What would you say?

Hopefully we will never find ourselves in that type of situation. But two weeks ago, just outside of Atlanta, 33-year-old Ashley Smith DID find herself in that situation, almost exactly as I described it.

As most of us know, the man who stuck the gun in her side that morning was Brian Nichols, a former college football linebacker, who a day earlier had allegedly killed a judge, a court reporter, and a deputy inside an Atlanta courthouse, where he was being taken to stand trial for rape. Later, as he was trying to escape from authorities, he hijacked several cars and allegedly killed a federal agent.

And now he’s a guest in your apartment—and still armed!

Most of us probably find it difficult to imagine what we would say or do, faced with such horrific circumstances—but in the case of Ashley Smith we don’t need to imagine anything, because we know for a fact what she said and what she did.

To describe it all as “extraordinary” seems grossly inadequate—but for lack of a better term that’s clearly what it was: extraordinary! A police officer in Gwinnett County Georgia perhaps said it best: “[Ashley Smith] acted very cool and levelheaded. We don’t normally see that in our profession. It was an absolutely best-case scenario that happened, a complete opposite of what you expected to happen. We were prepared for the worst and got the best.”

Because of Ashley Smith’s words and actions, it’s very likely that many more lives were saved—including her own!

Now if you followed the news a few weeks ago you know the incredible details of the rest of the story: After they entered Ashley’s apartment, Nichols first tied her up and took a shower. Then he began to talk to her. During their conversation, Ashley told Nichols that her husband had died in her arms 4 years ago after being stabbed; she also told him that if he killed her, her 5 year-old daughter would be an orphan.

Then she asked if she could read to pass the time. Thankfully, he said Yes. So she went into her bedroom, and grabbed hold of two books: the Bible, and a Christian book of practical wisdom by Rick Warren entitled, The Purpose-Driven Life.

He asked her to read to him, so she began with chapter 33 of The Purpose Driven Life (that, providentially, is where she had previously left off in the book). At the very beginning of that chapter, Rick Warren writes: “We serve God by serving others. The world defines greatness in terms of power, possessions, prestige and position. If you can demand service from others, you’ve arrived. In our self-serving culture with its me-first mentality, acting like a servant is not popular.”

That line struck a cord in Nichols, a man who had flaunted his power during the previous 24 hours and used it to kill four innocent people. The biblical philosophy Rick Warren expressed in that one line from chapter 33 was the antithesis of the philosophy Brian Nichols had been living by—perhaps all his life.

From there, Ashley went on to speak to Nichols about God, family, and the crimes he had committed. She asked him to think of the families of the victims he had shot and how they were feeling. She also helped Nichols to see that there was hope for him—even now—even after all he had done—but that he needed to turn himself in and stop the killing for that hope to be realized.

With incredible courage she said to him: “You know, your miracle could be that you need to . . . be caught for this. You need to go to prison and you need to share the Word of God with them, with all the prisoners there.”

Amazingly, 7 hours later, Brian Nichols let Ashley Smith leave so that she could go and pick up her daughter. While en route, she called 911, and a SWAT team quickly surrounded her apartment.

Nichols responded—thankfully—by waving a white piece of cloth to signal his surrender, and he was taken into custody without further incident.

This morning we gather in faith to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. In today’s first reading from Acts 10 St. Peter says, “We are witnesses of all that [Jesus] did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree. [But] this man God raised on the third day and granted that he be visible, not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commissioned us to preach to the people and testify that he is the one appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead.”

First and foremost, we know about the resurrection of Jesus Christ and we believe in it because of the witness of Peter, James, John and those other apostles. Theirs is the primary testimony. But we also believe—at least I do—in the resurrection of Jesus because of what I would call the secondary testimony of people like Ashley Smith!

I don’t know about you, but I look at a woman like this and I say, “How did she do it, except by the power of the risen Christ—the risen Christ she believes in?”

How did she keep from panicking? How did she exhibit such incredible courage and wisdom when her life was on the line? And most of all, how did she demonstrate compassion and love for her ENEMY—a man who was prepared (at least early on) to kill her and thus separate her from the person she loved most on this earth, namely, her daughter?

By what power was she able to overcome her normal human emotions and do these things?



And so, in her own unique way, Ashley Smith testified to the world 2 weeks ago that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead and is with us always (as Scripture says) until the end of the world!

God, believe it or not, expects the same from you and from me. He expects each of us, in our own unique circumstances, to show others that his Son is alive. We are to do that by the way we speak, by the way we act, and by the way we interact with others.

And we all have the potential to fulfill this mandate and be this kind of witness in the future, regardless of what our past has been like.

Think again of Ashley Smith. You know, from what I’ve read in the last few days it’s pretty clear to me that this woman didn’t always take her Christian faith as seriously as she does now. There’s been a big change in her life. As a teenager, for example, she was arrested for shoplifting; later she got into trouble with the law for speeding and drunken driving and even battery!

In one recent interview, Ashley’s grandfather talked about his granddaughter’s difficult past, but he said the family always hoped that her good upbringing would eventually lead to positive changes in her life! That upbringing, not coincidentally, included being raised in a church community and attending services every Sunday. And this, her grandfather believes, influenced how Ashley handled herself when she was taken hostage. As he put it (and here I quote): “It was almost like she was recalling all these things she learned as a child.”

Ashley Smith had a foundation of faith in her life—a foundation that literally made a life-and-death difference in a very difficult situation. (Please hear that, you parents who tell your children you’re “too busy” to bring them to Mass every Sunday. Know that you are depriving them of that foundation!)

But it’s also clear that Ashley Smith has been personalizing her faith recently, deepening her conversion, and striving to grow in her relationship with the risen Lord. That’s no doubt why she was reading The Purpose-Driven Life and the Bible in her spare time, as opposed to the latest trashy novels or the latest issue of Cosmopolitan. And that’s why she was able to touch the mind and heart of a hardened criminal like Brian Nichols!

My point is that if Ashley Smith can change and become a good witness for the Lord, then so can we, regardless of our spiritual condition at the present moment. In fact, for some of us, a simple stroll into a reconciliation room is really all that we need to turn us around and get us headed in the right direction.

Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead so that the gates of heaven would be opened and so that we could live with him forever. He died and rose, that we might share his resurrected life for all eternity.

But we only receive the fullness of that resurrected life in the future if we witness to it NOW, by living a life faithful to our Baptism.

Lord Jesus, risen and glorious Savior, we ask you on this Easter Sunday to bless Ashley Smith in a special way for the incredible witness she gave to the world two weeks ago. We thank you for filling her with the wisdom and courage she needed to love her enemy and share the truth with him. We ask you now to give her the grace that she needs to continue her witness to your risen life. And please, Lord Jesus, give to each and every one of us that very same grace, so that someday we will all share in the fullness of your risen life. Amen.