Miss America contestant shares story of faith and forgiveness
For Dawn Smith Jordan, every day is a gift. On Sunday, the former Miss South Carolina and second runner-up in the 1987 Miss America Pageant shared her story of strength and forgiveness with an audience during East Aurora Wesleyan Church’s Church in the Park event.
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Jordan was thrust into the spotlight in 1985, when her 19-year-old sister Shari Faye was abducted from the family’s driveway in Lexington County, South Carolina, just days before her high school graduation. The ensuing search resulted in the largest manhunt in South Carolina’s history. The man behind the crime, Larry Gene Bell, harassed the family for weeks following the abduction.
“He called our home eight times during that investigation and led us to believe she was alive,” said Jordan. On the fifth day of Shari’s disappearance, Bell called the family home, and said he was turning himself in, and would be returning Shari. It was a brief glimpse of hope that soon vanished for the family. Authorities found Shari’s body in a neighboring county.
“He had killed her the first night he took her, leading us to believe she was alive,” said Jordan. The calls from Bell kept coming though. “He called again, and a little nine-year-old girl had gone missing, so he gave me directions to her body.”
The last time he called, Jordan said, it was her life he threatened. “He told me that I would be next, that he would get me, too.”
Bell also forced Shari to write a final letter home to her family. It was that letter that eventually led police to find Bell.
“Shari’s letter was the piece of evidence that had an imprint of a phone number that led to where he was house-sitting,” she said. Police tracked down Bell and he was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death.
In 1989, during a time when CBS was filming a movie about the crime, Jordan received a letter from Bell, asking for her forgiveness.
“I was writing my first book, the movie was being done, and here comes this letter,” she said. “And I just thought, “How do you forgive the unforgivable?”
Jordan says the process to forgive Bell took about two years and involved a lot of soul searching.
“You know, I know we’re supposed to forgive, but to really forgive someone that has done something that is unforgivable was a whole different story.” she said, adding that her answer came through her belief in Jesus.
“Because of Christ and what he did on the cross, he paid the debt for our sins. I could go from that and say, ‘I’m going to choose to forgive you because I believe that’s what God’s done for me,’” she said. “I heard it said one time, you can never forgive anyone more than God has forgiven you.”
The act, she says, was ultimately a gift for her, saying that through her faith, she was able to shed her victim mentality.
“Shari wrote in her letter don’t let this ruin your life. I mean I was only 21-years-old. And so at 21-years-old, if I had been like, ‘I give up on life’, that’s tragic.”
Jordan says the decision to forgive changed her life.
“We can’t do a thing about the past; we have to let it go. And ultimately, we have to choose to go in that direction and quit looking back.”
Just 13 months after her sister’s murder, Jordan went on to compete in the Miss South Carolina pageant.
“I think it was kind of a nice distraction from all the attention we got from the tragedy,” she said, adding that she and Shari had always watched the Miss South Carolina Pageant on television together.
“She always said, ‘I think you could be Miss South Carolina, and I was like, ‘no way, those girls are perfect.’” After some additional encouragement by a voice teacher, Jordan competed in the pageant and won the title of Miss South Carolina.
“It was a miracle,” she said, laughing.
Since Shari’s death, Jordan has written several books and sang at venues across the county, all while sharing her story of forgiveness.
“The truth is yes, I did live through tragedy. But that’s the good news, I lived through it,” she said. “I’ve come out of it. I didn’t stay there. And we all have that choice. We all have those circumstances in our lives that we would never choose, but we always have a choice of how we respond.”
Today, when she’s not traveling the country, Jordan is giving voice lessons to students in her Columbia, South Carolina home. Though her children are grown, she spends time with them, along with her younger brother.
“I’m not living every day grieved and afraid and overwhelmed with sadness. My life is full of joy and purpose,” says Jordan. “I want to live my days well, I want to make a difference. I want to be the mom that my kids need me to be, I want to be the sister my brother needs me to be,” adding that she wants to be a positive influence in other people’s lives. “As long as we have breath in our bodies, I believe we have a purpose, and it’s not just to sit and grieve.”
For more information on Dawn Smith Jordan, visit www.dawnsmithjordan.com.