by Maurine Jensen Proctor
Posted March 14, 2003
The media has taken us to a Salt Lake neighborhood filled with yellow and light blue balloons to welcome home Elizabeth; they have shown us the exuberance of family and the spontaneous celebration of neighbors that Wednesday night of her return. Yet what they haven’t done, and cannot do, is delve into the spiritual reality that flows in and through this story like a river of light.
They cannot portray the secret struggle to hold onto hope that Elizabeth could return, the inner searching about the meaning and power of prayer, and they did not show–or even mention–that the Smarts’ neighbors and ward members gathered at the Church that first night and did what they had done so many times in the last nine months. They knelt together and prayed-this time not with anxious pleading, but with an overflow of gratitude at the safe return of a child that they all felt was their own.
Meridian talked to Elizabeth’s bishop, her Young Women leader, and other ward friends to get the rest of the story.
The Ward Mobilized
The night Elizabeth was kidnapped, June 5, she had been with her family at an awards ceremony at school where she had been given 8 awards in several categories for excellence. In addition to her keen abilities musically, she is a runner, a scholar, a good citizen. The family came home particularly tired, for it had been a hard time since Lois Smart’s father had been buried two days before.
When Mary Katherine came to her parents’ bedroom with the devastating news that Elizabeth had been taken, Ed called the police and then did what came most naturally. He called his neighbors, most of them in his ward, and though, as a counselor in the bishopric, he knew Bishop David Hamblin was out of town visiting a new grandchild in California, he left a message on his cell phone. When he got the message he and his wife, Charlotte, left for Salt Lake. This was a time when he was needed.
Kathleen Garn, wife of former Senator Jake Garn, received a call from Ed at 4:40 a.m. She told her husband who called the FBI. Then that morning she went to the airport and alerted them to be on guard for a slender blonde girl who may be put on a plane.
Many began fasting. The Hamblin’s 13-year-old granddaughter in California went to school fasting and at lunchtime her friends said, “Rachel, why aren’t you eating?” When she told them she was fasting for Elizabeth, 13 lunches were thrown away. “We can help too.”
A Swell of Volunteers
Heartsick neighbors gathered immediately to help, prayers on their lips. What could they do? The police had said they couldn’t search the neighborhood or hills yet, but they could distribute fliers, so they began pasting them all over the valley, faxing them to all the western states.
They moved with such urgency and focus that at the end of the day when 700 people gathered at the church for prayer, Robin Ingram, Elizabeth’s Young Women’s advisor, saw her son David and realized for the first time that it was his birthday, and she had forgotten.
By the next day this core group became the organizers of a sophisticated search where every volunteer was logged in, given sectors to scrutinize, taught what to look for, and then debriefed. They were told that Elizabeth might be dehydrated, she might not be able to call out. Eleven hundred volunteers showed up that first day and continued at that pace for 14 days without any waning of interest, no sense that they wanted to give up. Everyone was motivated by the image of that pure-faced child.
At first the Shriner’s Hospital was the volunteer center, but after three days they moved it to the church-their own ward house.
Go With Prayer
The outpouring of kindness was breathtaking. People from every walk of life and every faith showed up at 6:00 in the morning. CEOs took days off and showed up with a water bottle in Levis and hiking boots. Two women from Ogden took the day off work to man the tip line, and then decided to take the next two-and-a-half months off to continue. An 88-year-old came to search, mothers with babies in backpacks. At first the days were abnormally cold for June, then they became sweltering.
“We asked the searchers to go with a prayer in their heart, no matter what their religious affiliation,” said Kathleen Garn. “Go with your God and pray that you will see something that will help us find her. They were receptive to that. They weren’t offended because almost everyone believed in a Higher Being.”
People who ran these kind of searches said this was the biggest one ever. Nothing before had compared to the volunteer effort to find Elizabeth-and as they searched, the neighborhood and community became uncommonly bonded. She had captured the attention of a nation.
Community Services Volunteered
People just wanted to help. Four thousand pizzas arrived to feed the volunteers. Hires restaurant set up grill in front of the church. One person donated 65,000 fliers. Just when the sisters were wondering how to refrigerate all the food, an empty refrigerated truck arrived-followed by another one with more food. Every corner of the street had bottles of water.
“It was a back up of trucks vying to get into the church parking lot to deliver things,” said Charlotte Hamblin, the bishop’s wife.
In the Smarts’ ward, friends canceled their summer vacations and didn’t plant flowers. The Young Women’s rough out camp was canceled so the youth could search. They had to find her.
They wouldn’t learn until nine months later when she was found that, imprisoned by her captor, she had camped out in Dry Creek Canyon in the foothills behind her house for two months and heard searchers calling her name, but was unable to answer.
In for the Long Haul
At last, after 14 days, the search center closed and the church went back exclusively to its normal purpose. “I remember coming home and my young daughter was in tears saying, we can’t stop. We haven’t found Elizabeth,” said Robin Ingram. She assured her, “We will still keep looking. People are watching us. If we, who are close to the Smarts, keep up hope, people will still hope and they will still look.”
From the beginning, Bishop Hamblin had told the ward, “We are in this for the long haul.”
The Smart family still held their daily press conferences to keep attention focused on Elizabeth. Experts say they handled their situation in an exemplary way.
At church, every prayer in every organization included Elizabeth-including this last Sunday. Months passed but with each new roll, the three other girls in her Young Women class wanted her name on the list. “Sometimes they were quiet,” said Robin “trying to handle it. Sometimes they laughed and reminisced about their times with Elizabeth. We never talked about her in past tense. It was always, ‘when Elizabeth comes home.'”
The ward held many sessions of fasting and prayer, joining at the church after for kneeling prayers. Sometimes they held hands as they prayed. “I visited a ward recently,” said Charlotte Hamblin, “and someone gave a general prayer ‘for all those in need.’ We don’t do that anymore. All of our prayers have tremendous meaning.” They had been supercharged in an environment of aching need.
Each prayer and fasting was about something specific and detailed. One time it was to soften the heart of the perpetrator. Another time it was specifically to give Elizabeth strength, heart and courage. The ward went to the temple together. They prayed with passion and real intent.
“What we learned is that our Heavenly Father is in charge, and we are not in charge very much,” said Bishop Hamblin. “There are many bad people, and bad things can happen to good people.
“Never was there a time when Elizabeth wasn’t prayed for in every home,” said Robin Ingram. You could see it in the children. I think the hardest thing for me was when my younger children came to me and said, ‘We’ve been fasting and praying. How come our prayers aren’t being answered?’ I explained, ‘We need to be patient. We need to be strong. Maybe our prayers are being answered and we don’t know it yet.'”
One little child started praying, “Please bring Elizabeth safely to one of her homes.”
Elder Russell M Ballard came to Church the Sunday after the kidnapping and gave the family blessings. Professional counselors came to teach the adults how to talk to their children.
Yet how do you keep up hope when all the searches and publicity are met with silence? No Elizabeth.
The first day Elizabeth was gone, her mother Lois was so shattered she could hardly look up, but buried her head in her hands in despair. It would have been tempting to curl into a fetal position and stay in bed, but she told friends that it was having other children to care for, others who needed her that kept her going. She had to get up to take care of a four-year-old. They had a family pattern to maintain-family prayer, family scriptures were a rhythm that would continue unbroken.
One time, the Smart grandparents had invited the family on vacation. “I can’t go,” said Lois. “What if Elizabeth comes home while I’m gone?” She had to go for the others.
People said they drew their strength from the Smarts. They were the pillars. They never seemed daunted. “Be not faithless, but believing.”
What’s more there was no malice or anger in them toward the kidnapper. They were never revengeful, just hopeful.
They didn’t seem to ask, “Why us?” “If it were me,” laughed one of their friends, “I’d think, ‘if I could get my hands this guy, I’d want to strangle him.'”
Everyone thought the fall deer hunt might turn up something, but it came and went without a word.
As time wore on, Robyn Ingram said the light blue ribbons on the trees as she drove into the neighborhood became depressing. They looked worn and weatherbeaten. She thought, we really ought to take those down-but then how do you do that?
Priesthood Blessings and Understanding
Bishop Hamblin said that Ed had learned a valuable lesson from Lois’s father before he died of a painful cancer, and that is to ask for as many priesthood blessings as you need to sustain you. That’s what Ed did through this ordeal. “Once in a while he would just get down so far that he needed help. This situation presented layers and layers of challenges that nobody else knew. He’d come and talk, get a blessing, and he would leave renewed.
“When people have faith and they have made covenants with God, he sustains them. It doesn’t mean they get the answer they want, in the timetable they want, but they are renewed. At these times Ed would receive a blessing and would leave ready to continue in strength.
“We were prepared for any outcome,” said Bishop Hamblin. “We are overjoyed and grateful the way it turned out, but we know that faithful, prayerful people have it turn out differently.
“We learned the meaning of the scripture found in D&C 98: 1-3:
Verily I say unto you my friends, fear not, let your hearts be comforted; yea, rejoice evermore, and in everything give thanks;Waiting patiently on the Lord, for your prayers have entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth, and are recorded with this seal and testament-the Lord hath sworn and decreed that they shall be granted.Therefore, he giveth this promise unto you, with an immutable covenant that they shall be fulfilled; and all things wherewith you have been afflicted shall work together for your good, and to my name’s glory, saith the Lord.
“John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted said to Ed, ‘I’ve been through dozens and dozens of these, and I don’t know how you’ve handled it as well as you have.’ The answer is the Lord’s spirit. It’s a sobering lesson,” Bishop Hamblin continued.
“Our ward has changed forever. We’re more spiritual; we’re more loving. We’re more in tune. We have been stretched as far as we could be stretched, but we’ve learned something that you couldn’t have learned in any other way,” said the bishop.
“It’s not just that the Spirit prompts us once in awhile. It’s every day. That’s our reality.
“When Mary Katherine came to her father in October and said that she suddenly remembered that it was Emmanuel who had taken Elizabeth, I think it was the Spirit that refreshed her memory.”
Ed Smart had an abiding sense that Elizabeth was alive-and it was, in part, that sense that empowered the family to, in turn, fire others. Nine months after the kidnapping, she was still on the minds of America, and when she was found, the rejoicing went well beyond the family and close friends. Some burst into tears. Some said they even fell to the ground weeping. Her family can’t stop hugging her. That night she fell asleep holding hands with her younger sister, Mary Katherine.
Do challenges lie ahead? Of course, but the Smarts say that after what they have been through, any problems they have now are problems they can handle.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.