On February 6, 2015 ISIS claimed that an American hostage, Kayla Mueller, had been killed by a coalition airstrike. Only then did details begin to emerge about this young woman, whose identity had been kept secret in hopes of freeing her. A few days later her family confirmed her death.
Four years ago, Carl Mueller read these words in a birthday letter from his daughter, Kayla:
“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.”
No more than twenty-three at the time, Kayla does not hedge her beliefs with cautious phrases like I want to or I will try. “I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine,” she writes. “If this is how you are revealed to me, this is how I will forever seek you.”
If this was Kayla’s credo, she certainly lived up to it. During high school and her years at Northern Arizona University as a political science major, Kayla gave her time to support local and global causes. She volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters and founded a local chapter of Amnesty International. She protested torture training at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and organized demonstrations to draw attention to the genocide in Darfur.
After graduating from college in 2009, Kayla traveled to India, where she worked in an orphanage and assisted Tibetan refugees, and then to Israel, where she volunteered with the African Refugee Development Center. She also supported the International Solidarity Movement, sleeping in front of Palestinian homes threatened with demolition by bulldozers. She marched in nonviolent protests and learned what tear gas tastes like.
Kayla’s empathy for other people drew her to suffering wherever she was. When she returned home to Prescott, Arizona, for a year in 2011, she helped at a treatment center for HIV/AIDS and a shelter for homeless women, where she put in twelve-hour shifts. In December 2012 she moved to Turkey, near the border with Syria, to help with the Syrian refugee crisis. In the eyes of the Syrian refugees she must have seen an affirmation of her credo – God is near to those who suffer. “For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal,” she said in May 2013. August of that year she was captured by ISIS after visiting a hospital in Aleppo, Syria. Eighteen months later she was dead.
Kayla’s story provokes a storm of questions. Many, influenced by media skepticism, wonder at her naiveté. What was she doing in Syria? Why did she put herself in harm’s way? Kayla’s own words in letters and blog posts more than answer these cursory questions.
Like many of her generation, Kayla was uncomfortable with institutionalized religion. As one friend told the Arizona Republic, “She saw God in a bigger sense than that. God was something that you met in the world. I think she was the authentic seeker. She was still trying to figure out who God was all of the time.” At one point she spent time at Plum Village, a Buddhist monastery in France, to learn about “engaged spirituality” from Thich Nhat Hanh.
Kayla was not just a humanitarian. Her simple belief that she was in the world to serve others was fed by faith. Her faith, therefore, had tangible results. And consequences. Caring for the outcasts, the ignored, and the displaced is one of the least heroic precepts of the gospel. It was how Kayla sought for God, and that search brought her to one of the most dangerous parts of the world. Although she was taken hostage because she was American, it was her desire to alleviate suffering that brought her to the Middle East.
This theme of suffering must have come fearfully close to Kayla during her year and a half in captivity. This time it was she who needed help. Given the fear she must have felt, Kayla’s attitude to her imprisonment was remarkable. “If you could say I have ‘suffered’ at all throughout this whole experience,” she wrote last year to her family, “it is only in knowing how much suffering I have put you all through.” Although Kayla was honest about her regrets, she pointed her family to the same surrender to God that she had experienced. Even from prison, she tried to comfort others.
Kayla Mueller is a martyr not because she was killed for her beliefs but because she was willing to live by them at any cost. “For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal.” Now that Kayla is gone, will we say the same? Do we accept the suffering of other people as unfortunate but inevitable? Or will we let empathy lead us to action? What would we die for? For what will we live?