This week finds one of our small town’s own in the international headlines. Kayla Mueller, humanitarian aid worker and prisoner of the Islamic State, was killed during airstrikes against her captors by Jordan’s military over the weekend. The airstrikes were to avenge the death of First Lieutenant Moaz al-Kasasbeh, who was burned alive while trapped in a cage. The barbarity of al-Kasasbeh’s death and many others at the hands of Islamic State militants has sickened anyone with a heart and a conscience. Kayla’s death brought the atrocities of the Islamic State to our town’s doorstep.
Prescott is small enough that even though I didn’t know Kayla, I know several people who did. Our town’s size seems defined by this single degree of separation – just big enough that we don’t know everyone, but small enough that we know-someone-who. From all accounts, she was a woman with enormous spirit and courage. She was the type of person who embodied selflessness and who revealed humanity’s best through her actions while helping those who faced humanity’s worst.
As I’ve looked out at my students this week, I’ve felt a sense of unease and dread as I’ve noted the more idealistic among them - those students who have large enough hearts to believe that they can indeed make a difference in what appears to me right now to be a cruel and dark world. There are shadows reaching across our planet that make me tense and anxious for my daughters’ generation. And yet I’ve also felt wonder and great hope as I look into the eyes of my students. I think of that damn starfish story that makes me tear up every time I even reflect upon it in spite of how cynical I feel. To paraphrase Dr. King, only light can illuminate darkness.
I’ve read Kayla’s letter to her family several times and I’m blown away by the courageous and gracious heart it reveals. And I am grateful that she existed and that her kind appear, like angels, to those in the most desperate of situations. “Where is the world?” the people of Syria asked her. She didn’t have an answer. We cannot know much of Kayla’s work in Syria, and yet we can imagine that she brought some measure of comfort, and perhaps even joy, to those who needed it most. Her death does not make sense to me, and I cannot fathom the despair of her family. In spite of the horror I feel at her senseless death, I can’t help but also be grateful that there are others like her, others who will be inspired and moved by her story to do good, others who will remind us of our humanity by giving of themselves and shining their light into the darkness of the abyss, even if but for a moment.