Encountering God in the face of suffering

An undated handout photo provided by The Daily Courier shows Kayla Mueller speaking to the Prescott, Ariz., Kiwanis Club about the situation in Syria and efforts to build a second camp for refugees in Turkey. Photo: CNS/Matt Hinshaw, EPA via The Daily Courier An undated handout photo provided by The Daily Courier shows Kayla Mueller speaking to the Prescott, Ariz., Kiwanis Club about the situation in Syria and efforts to build a second camp for refugees in Turkey. Photo: CNS/Matt Hinshaw, EPA via The Daily Courier

What we can learn from a young women killed by ISIS

In February, the world learned that 26-year-old Kayla Mueller had died at the hands of the terrorist group ISIS. Kayla’s tragic death brought her to the attention of the world and gave us a chance to catch a glimpse of an inspiring young woman — an aid worker who followed a call to be with people in extreme suffering.

At a young age, Kayla exhibited a profound depth of compassion and self-sacrifice. She took enormous risks, working in some of the most desperate and dangerous parts of the world, and did so with a sense of deep joy and purpose. She felt a call to alleviate the suffering of people without hope and to stand in solidarity with them. The depth of her identification with those on the margins of society is revealed in a letter she wrote in 2011, when she was 23:

“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. … 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.”

After graduating from college in 2009, Kayla left behind the comfort of her life in Arizona to serve those who were suffering, 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.”

She went to India and Israel to work with refugees, then in 2012 to the Turkey/Syria border. In August 2013, she was kidnapped by ISIS as she was leaving a hospital in Aleppo, Syria, where she had been sitting with patients and listening to their stories.

In the midst of the news stories following Kayla’s death, 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 are 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 Kayla and shaped her ability to look at the agonies of the world with an unblinking gaze of compassion: her ministers, her teachers, all the people who watched her grow up and helped her form the ideals that fueled her desire to transform the world around her. I wondered how our students at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry might influence others in the same way.

At this time of year there are millions of young people setting off for adult life with a dedication to do something beyond themselves, seeking ways to contribute to society. When any of us sets out to notice and diminish suffering in the world, we never know what we might accomplish. More importantly, Kayla reminds us that we also have no idea who we might influence by the witness of our life.

We can all take inspiration from the way Kayla lived her life. We are inundated with tragedy and suffering on the news, in our cities and maybe in our own lives, and we are faced daily with a choice. We can let ourselves become jaded. Or, like Kayla, we can welcome those on the margins. We can choose to see a sister or brother in the stranger and treat him or her with dignity — we can dare to “find God in the face of suffering.”

Mark Markuly is the dean of Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Northwest Catholic - May 2015