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Out of violent rampage, a parable of faith and calm

By Correspondents of The Christian Science Monitor, G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondents of The Christian Science Monitor / March 16, 2005

She has become an overnight hero, an instant celebrity in a media age when the nation seems to need something to feel good about. Ashley Smith, the blond waitress with the calm voice and seemingly infinite poise, has become Jessica Lynch with a crystalline memory and perhaps a less choreographed narrative.

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Her tale, for the moment, has become the most celebrated seven hours in America - a hostage tale that's sparked conversations from water coolers to the evening news.

For a country used to getting things done with overwhelming force, it was a humbling lesson in Peacemaking 101: how a young mother talked down a troubled man with courage, levelheadedness, and faith in prayer after he had allegedly killed a judge, a court reporter, a sheriff's deputy, and a customs agent.

In a nation grown weary of violence, it offered a reassuring lesson that every now and then people can steer even the most dangerous events to a better end. "At this point in time, to avoid this thing becoming even more crazy, it wasn't a question of who was right or wrong, but how do we get this thing taken care of, managed, so nobody else gets killed?" says Robert Benjamin, a veteran conflict negotiator in Portland, Ore. "And her deft touch, unstudied as it was, was quite frankly a moment of brilliance."

In some ways, she epitomizes the many Americans clinging to the edge of the middle class, working multiple jobs, making mistakes, finding loss and redemption, and enduring tragedy, all while looking for wisdom and comfort in self-help books and Scripture.

Still, she has faced uncommon tragedy: Four years ago, her husband was stabbed in a fight and died in her arms. In the following years, relatives have told newspapers, she allowed men to walk all over her, and some of her friends and family have described how Smith had not quite gotten her life together, and that her mistakes and problems had piled up.

But thrust into a deadly drama, bound in duct tape, Smith spotted a book she'd been reading - the evangelical bestseller "The Purpose-Driven Life" by Rick Warren - and asked her captor if she could read some excerpts.

The idea that her calm stemmed from trust in divine Providence has already hit American pulpits and tapped the nation's growing evangelical streak, providing a boost reminiscent of how Pfc. Jessica Lynch's story bolstered the country's morale in the early days of the Iraq War.

"I think God gave this young lady a supernatural empathy and compassion for someone that most anybody else would have tried to kill," says H.B. London, vice president for ministry outreach/pastoral ministry at Focus on the Family. As she marshaled her resources under duress, he says, "strength wasn't the issue, or force, but reasoning was.... I think our call is to be peacemakers, and that's what she was."

In her account of what happened, Smith engaged Nichols in conversations about life's purpose: "I basically just talked to him and tried to gain his trust."

"He said he thought that I was an angel sent from God," Smith said at a Sunday news conference. "And that I was his sister and he was my brother in Christ. And that he was lost and God led him right to me to tell him that he had hurt a lot of people. And the families - the people - to let him know how they felt, because I had gone through it myself."

Indeed, the language of faith wove itself throughout the ordeal. When Smith read aloud from "The Purpose-Driven Life," Nichols asked her to reread a passage that begins, "We serve God by serving others." She rendered his escape from the courthouse "a miracle" and charged him with a mission: "You need to go to prison and you need to share the word of God with them, with all the prisoners there."

In fact, those who believe a "transformation" occurred in her presence are pointing to a higher source. Already, Smith's story is a touchstone for a nation tracing its spiritual roots in difficult times.