Americans are still spellbound by the saga of Ashley Smith, the young Atlanta widow held hostage by murder suspect Brian Nichols. Reporters covering the story seem mystified that anyone at the mercy of an escaped inmateone who had that very day killed another woman and three mencould remain so calm.
The reason was that, as she herself implied in later interviews, Ms. Smith had learned to trust God. During her seven-hour ordeal, Ms. Smiththe widow of a murder victim who suffered much in her life was able to enter into the suffering of the man who held her captive. She calmed him and told him that God just might have had a purpose in sending him to her apartment. She even served him, making him pancakes.
In nearly 30 years of prison ministry, I've met many people like Ashley Smith. What they have in common is a belief that faith is stronger than fear something I learned myself when I was in prison in 1974. I was told another inmate planned to attack me. I had two choices: Ask to be put into "segregation" or trust God. I chose the latter. I was later confronted by my intended assailant; we became, if not friends, two inmates who ended up trusting each other.
Twenty-three years ago, a young Texas woman whose story has dramatic parallels to Ashley Smith's, also learned the power of faith over fear when she entered into the suffering of a dangerous man. Margaret Mayfield was shopping at a San Antonio store when a gun-wielding man suddenly confronted her. "I'm the man who killed the woman at the restaurant last night," he announced, "and I'm going to kill you if you make one move."
Ms. Mayfield had just been abducted by mass murderer Stephan Peter Morin. Terrified, she began praying aloud. Instead of ordering her to drive away, Morin began to sob and talk about his unhappy childhood. Ms. Mayfield told him: "It's not coincidence you're here. God brought you to this car. You think the hell you're going through is bad; it's nothing compared to the hell you're going to. Even though you have committed some horrible things, God still loves you."
Morin forced Ms. Mayfield to start driving, and as she drove, she continued telling him about the love of Christ and began playing evangelistic tapes. Morin pulled off the road and began to pray. "Jesus, I am sorry for everything I have ever done. Please save me." Morin then picked up his pistol, opened the chamber and dumped the bullets into Ms. Mayfield's hands. "I knew I was witnessing a miracle," Ms. Mayfield would later say.
Morin decided to go to Fort Worth to meet with evangelist Kenneth Copeland, whose tapes Ms. Mayfield had played. When police picked him up hours later, Morin surrendered quietly. "This morning I would have got up and shot the gun," he told the officers. "But I met this lady today, and now I'm different."
During Morin's incarceration in Bexar County Jail, a Prison Fellowship volunteer picked up where Ms. Mayfield left off, witnessing to Morin until he was transferred elsewhere. Years later, as Morin was about to be executed for his crimes, his last words were: "Heavenly Father, I give thanks for...the time that we have been together. . . . Allow your holy spirit to flow as I know your love has been showered upon me. . . . Lord Jesus, I commit my soul to you, I praise you, and I thank you."
The stories of Margaret Mayfield and Stephen Morin, and of Ashley Smith and Brian Nichols, illustrate the truth of the message Pope John Paul II has preached for nearly three decades: Fear not. By reaching out with God's love to those who meant them harm, Ms. Smith and Ms. Mayfield overwhelmed evil with good.
There is a wonderful lesson in thisan encouragement to all of us. If we trust the promises of God, we need not be held hostage by fear, the most dangerous hostage-taker of all. We can discover what we Christians celebrate this coming holy week: the great joy and power of faith, no matter the circumstances.