Last month, after being kidnapped by one of the world’s most feared terrorist groups, the world learned that 26-year-old Kayla Mueller died at the hands of ISIS. Kayla’s tragic death brought her into the attention of the world. If ISIS had not taken Kayla Mueller in Syria, we may not have known anything about her. However, the nature of her death gave us a chance to catch a glimpse of an inspiring young woman—a refugee and aid worker that followed her call to sit with people in extreme suffering.
Of course no one is perfect, but Kayla clearly exhibited a profound depth of compassion and self-sacrifice at a young age. She took enormous risks, working in some of the most desperate and dangerous parts of the world, and did so with a sense of joy and deep purpose. She felt a vocational call to alleviate the suffering of people without hope and to stand in solidarity with them. As a girl growing up in Prescott, Arizona, Kayla Mueller demonstrated a distinct sensitivity to the poor and suffering, especially those ravaged by society’s injustices. The depth of her identification with those on the margins of society is revealed in a letter she wrote to her father on his birthday in 2011. She was 23 at the time:
“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. I will always seek God. Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”
(Kayla pictured right, source: www.NPR.org)
In high school, Kayla was active in the Save Darfur coalition, took part in environmental causes, and even won a local award for her volunteer work with organizations like Big Brothers, Big Sisters and AmeriCorps. After graduating in 2009 from Northern Arizona University with a bachelor’s degree in political science, she decided to embrace the pain of the world in a more direct way, moving to India and Israel to work with refugees, and later in 2012 to the Turkey/Syria border. In August of 2013, Kayla was kidnapped by ISIS as she was leaving a hospital in Aleppo, Syria. She had been spending time in a Spanish Doctors without Borders hospital, sitting with patients and hearing their stories.
Some of us stumble through life looking for our life’s mission; others seem to know what they are destined to do from the time they are born. It appears Kayla knew at a young age that she had the brass ring in life (compared to the world’s standards) and decided to leave it behind and dedicate her life to bringing comfort to those with less security, comfort, and opportunity. A local Arizona paper quoted Kayla as saying:
“For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal …. It’s important to stop and realize what we have, why we have it and how privileged we are.”
As a young altruistic woman getting her hands dirty in the depths of the world’s pain and violence, Kayla didn’t demonstrate youthful self-righteousness. She didn’t challenge others to sell their positions and make the kind of radical commitment she did. Rather, in a world marked by the crucifixion of hope and opportunity, she recommended that everyone stop and recognize their privilege. It appears she had already learned the complicated spiritual truth that gratitude and thanksgiving, rather than guilt, is the pathway for the deepest personal transformations, the kinds that crack us open to feel the suffering of others.
After years of working in the world’s most despairing places, Kayla still managed to see a sister and brother in almost any face. Despite growing up in divided times, and coming from a state known for discriminatory laws, she cultivated an almost unfathomable ability to forgive. She even managed to engage her ISIS captors in basic acts of shared humanity. In the last days of her life, Kayla spent more time worrying about her loved ones than herself:
“I wanted to write you all a well thought out letter (but) … I could only but write the letter a paragraph at a time, just the thought of you all sends me into a fit of tears. If you could say I have “suffered” at all throughout this whole experience it is only in knowing how much suffering I have put you all through; I will never ask you to forgive me as I do not deserve forgiveness. 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 b/c literally there was no else…. + by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in free-fall. I pray each day that if nothing else, you have felt a certain closeness + surrender to God as well.”
(Kayla’s letter pictured left, source: www.express.co.uk)
As soon as her death became public, the media flocked to Arizona to piece together a story that might explain Kayla’s journey from her comfortable middle class life to a war-torn place like Syria. Blog sites exploded with tidbits of information about a humanitarian who always knew she wanted to pour out her life for others.
In the midst of these news stories, I became curious about her mother and father. I wanted to know how her parents introduced her to a world filled with the tension of both great blessings and horrible suffering. How did they raise a daughter with this kind of love for the downtrodden of the world? Where did they get the strength to let go when she decided to march into harm’s way? How would they cope in the future, especially in those silent moments of desolation and grief that is only known by parents who have buried a child? We all want our children to be good – but maybe not too good.
I also wanted to know more about the people who influenced the inner dynamics of thought and feeling that shaped her ability to look at the agonies of the world with an unblinking gaze of compassion. I wanted to interview her ministers, her teachers, all the people who watched her grow up and helped her form the ideals that fueled her belief in a personal agency to transform the world around her. I wanted to meet the people who gave her early opportunities to experience the joy of serving others and witnessed her capacity to hold the wounds of the world in her heart and hands. I wondered how our students at the School of Theology and Ministry might influence others in the same way. Here at the school we take the time in our class sessions, in community groups and in other gatherings to name the inequity and inequality that we find in our world and reflectively engage real-world problems. Many of our students echo the sentiments that Kayla penned in her own words. They seek to use their own tools to relieve suffering—to work for a more just and humane world—and holistically develop as grounded, authentic ministers that encourage others to also live into their own potential.
(Kayla Mueller’s Aunt pictured right, source: www.Newsweek.com)
There are millions of young people setting off for adult life with a dedication to do something beyond themselves. They seek to find ways to contribute to society, carrying a lifetime of memories of human suffering that will never allow them to let the world’s problems become “normal.” Some, like Kayla, will have their young lives flame out like Roman candles—flaring brilliantly for a short time before they disappear. We may never hear about most of those daring souls. However, we should never think that an interrupted life like Kayla’s fails to accomplish as much as those who live “long enough.” Often through history, the stories of young altruistic lives lost too early shape the moral imagination and inspiration of dynamic future leaders who bring the world to an entirely new place.
Aloysis Gonzaga, Stanislaus Kostka, and John Berchmans were Jesuits who all died young – Gonzaga at 23, Berchmans at 22, and Kostka at 17. These three Jesuits, sometimes referred to as “Christ’s cadets,” stood out from the crowd because of their care for others, and became role models for generations of young people trying to decide what to do with their lives. They inspired others forming their ideals to dare to do something different than follow the status quo. Although their lives were short, they inspired a revolutionary pope to transform the Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII’s vision for the Church began with his youthful meditation on the lives of these three “cadets,” young men known more for their promise than the accomplishments of their short, interrupted lives. As the leader of the Catholic Church, he called into session a worldwide council of reformation. The Second Vatican Council opened Catholicism to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, put the Church’s social justice commitment into hyper-drive, and set loose a chain of events that has transformed the lives of millions and millions of people across the world.
As shown by the lives of these young Jesuits and Kayla Mueller, if someone sets out to notice and diminish suffering in the world, you never know (and they may never know) what they will accomplish. But, more importantly, you never know who they might later influence by the witness of their life. After her death, Kayla’s parents issued a statement:
“We are so proud of the person Kayla was and the work that she did while she was here with us. She lived with purpose, and we will work every day to honor her legacy.”
We can take inspiration from the way Kayla lived her life. How easy it is to let suffering become normal. We are inundated with tragedy and suffering on the news, in our cities and maybe in our own lives. We are faced daily with the choice to let ourselves become jaded by the hurt of the world. Yet we are also faced with opportunity—the opportunity to welcome those on the margins. Like Kayla, we can choose to see a sister or brother in the stranger and treat them with dignity—to seek and encounter God in the face of suffering. Yet, in our ministry we are called, like Kayla, to find strength and urgency in our vocation. We are challenged to recognize the places of privilege in which we find ourselves, commit to deep transformation, and break ourselves open to the deep joys and sufferings of others.
I hope Kayla’s parents are aware that their child’s legacy is not just the work she did in trying to lessen suffering in Arizona, India, Palestine, Israel and Syria. Because the world knows about her, Kayla may change the world even more through her death than the great works she accomplished in life. That won’t heal the hole in her parent’s hearts, but maybe they’ll find some comfort in imagining Kayla’s fingerprints in the work of all the people inspired by a girl from Arizona who loved the suffering people in Syria enough to lose her life for them. Following in Kayla’s example, let us not allow this suffering become normal.