Monday, February 16, 2015

The Courage of Saints

Address to students

You may have seen in the news recently that a young lady, Kayla Mueller, was one of the recent victims of the terrorist group known as the “Islamic State” which is now controlling large parts of Syria and Iraq. ISIS is the group that has been beheading people, and recently took their depravity to the next level by burning to death a Jordanian pilot in a cage , filming it, and showing it to the world. Ms. Mueller was a remarkable young lady, only 26 when she was killed, and her life is worthy of retelling.

She graduated from college in 2009 with a degree in political science from Northern Arizona University. Even before that, in high school, it was evident she had a strong social conscience, as she was involved in causes such as Youth Count, AmeriCorps, America's Promise, Open Inn for troubled youth, Big Brothers Big Sisters and other organizations.  Upon graduation from college, she worked in India and also in Tel Aviv, Israel for five months, helping at the African Refugee Development Center. In 2011, she returned to Prescott, Arizona and worked at an AIDS clinic and a shelter for abused women. Later in 2011, convinced she was called to work with refugees from Africa, she became an au pair in France so as to learn French, but ended up instead working on the Turkish-Syria border providing support to Syrian refugees who were fleeing Syria, seeking asylum in Turkey. On August 3, 2013, she visited with Spanish Doctors without Borders in Aleppo, Syria, and spent the night at the hospital. The next morning, trying to catch a bus, she was captured by ISIS.

Not knowing if she were alive or dead, her parents didn’t discuss her capture publicly, fearing that if their daughter became a kind of celebrity, she would be used for propaganda purposes by ISIS and likely executed. The first they knew she was alive was almost 9 months after her capture, when they received a letter from her that was smuggled out from some fellow cellmates who had been released. Even then, the parents kept their daughter’s situation unknown to the public, but you can imagine the horror they felt watching ISIS behead and burn their victims for the world to see, not knowing if their daughter were going to be next. It was only after the family confirmed their daughter was in fact, dead—they haven’t released the details—that they made the contents of this letter known to the world, and I want to read you part of it, as it reveals a heroic courage and faith that I believe is inspirational for all of us.

This is a redacted version of Ms. Mueller’s letter to her parents and friends, dating to May 2014.

Everyone, If you are receiving this letter it means I am still detained but my cell mates have been released. I have asked them to contact you and send you this letter. It's hard to know what to say… I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator because literally there was no else, and by God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in free fall. I have been shown in darkness, light and have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it. I pray each day that if nothing else, you have felt a certain closeness and surrender to God as well and have formed a bond of love and support amongst one another.  I miss you all as if it has been a decade of forced separation…I have had many hours to think how only in your absence have I finally @ 25 years old come to realize your place in my life--the gift that is each one of you, and the person I could not be if you were not a part of my life, my family, my support. I DO NOT want the negotiations for my release to be your duty, if there is any other option, take it, even if it takes more time. This should never have become your burden…

None of us could have known it would be this long but I know I am also fighting from my side in the ways I am able and I have a lot of fight left inside of me. I am not breaking down and I will not give in no matter how long it takes. I wrote a song some months ago that says, 'The part of me that pains the most also gets me out of bed, without out your hope there would be nothing left’ ... The thought of your pain is the source of my own, simultaneously the hope of our reunion is the source of my strength. Please be patient, give your pain to God. I know you would want me to remain strong. That is exactly what I am doing. Do not fear for me, continue to pray as will I-- by God's will we will be together soon.

All my everything, 


I was listening to National Public Radio when I first heard the contents of this letter—and got choked up. Even in captivity, she was more concerned about her parents than herself, not wanting them to bear the burden of negotiating her release, even if it meant she were to be in captivity longer. She encouraged them to bring their pain to God, asking them not to fear on her behalf. In my view, this woman had the courage of saints. 

We are blessed to be part of a school that is now named after a saint, Saint John Paul II. But saints are not just the spiritually elite celebrities or the extraordinary few. We walk among them each day. I believe some of your teachers here are saintly. I believe you have classmates who are saintly. All of us, at some level, are called to be saints, called to live out our faith with conviction and courage. No, we’re not perfect, and we’ll stumble along the way. But God forgives, and we are called to live with courage, open to the adventure God has planned for us, whether that leads us to the Turkish-Syrian border, or whether we’re simply called to be examples to our classmates in the hallways of JPII.

In 2011, Ms. Mueller penned this simple prayer: "I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine. If this is how You are revealed to me, this is how I will forever seek You.”

May Kayla Mueller be an inspiration to all of us to direct our lives toward things that matter, and may we be given the courage and grace to trust in God and work for justice  as she did.

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