Kayla Mueller died 6,000 miles from her Arizona home, taken hostage and then killed as she followed her call to offer humanitarian aid in Syria.
Friends and family say the 26-year-old was walking the path she believed God set for her.
A close friend and campus minister at the college Mueller attended said the young woman was not the “high-energy, do-gooder saint” she has been portrayed as in some media reports.
“She was so laid back, so very humble. She saw the suffering before her and tried to respond,” said the Rev. Kathleen Day, who was Mueller’s campus minister at Northern Arizona University.
Mueller was an active member of the United Christian Ministry, an ecumenical campus ministry that includes The United Methodist Church, at Northern Arizona University. A candlelight vigil was planned at the ministry center on Feb. 14.
The Mueller family confirmed their daughter’s death Feb. 10. Kayla was captured in August 2013 by the Islamic State group, but the family had kept it a secret because ISIS threaten to kill their daughter if it was made public she was a hostage.
Keeping Kayla’s message alive
Day is part of a close knit community who knew of Mueller’s kidnapping in 2013 and has been in close touch with the family throughout the ordeal.
“The family is focusing on hope and on keeping Kayla’s message alive,” Day said in an interview with United Methodist News Service. “Their faith is strong. They are remarkable people, which is no surprise given their remarkable daughter.”
After her death, the Mueller family made public a letter Kayla wrote to them while she was in captivity.
“By God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall. 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,” she wrote.
Day described the way Kayla lived her life as “Christ-like.”
“She poured out her life and she really didn’t worry about whether she had enough. She worried about those who did not have enough. Her call was to use her gifts, her knowledge and privilege to fill someone else’s cup … and she called us to do the same.”
Day said when she first heard the rumors that Mueller had been kidnapped she immediately called Mueller’s parents to offer prayers and support.
“Her parents have not felt the absence of God, they have felt the presence of God through all this.”
Marsha Mueller, Kayla’s mother, told Day she used to sing, “He Who Began a Work in You,” to her daughter when she was a child.
Kayla regularly wrote a blog. In 2011, she wrote: “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.”
The Muellers have started a foundation, Kayla’s Hands, to continue her work.
United Methodist bishop offers prayers
Among those offering support is United Methodist Bishop Robert Hoshibata, episcopal leader of the Desert Southwest Conference.
“Horror struck close to home,” he said when he heard of her death.
“Loving God, we turn to you in prayer in this time of sadness and shock,” Hoshibata, wrote on a Facebook post. “We recoil at the cruelty that has resulted in the tragic loss of the life of Kayla Mueller. We pray for Kayla’s family and all who cherish her.”
The bishop said he first learned of Kayla’s captivity from Day.
“Since then my fervent prayers have been for Kayla and her family and for those who were then diligently working for her safe return,” he said.
Day said Kayla had always participated in projects to help others since grade school and throughout high school. She was involved in high-profile efforts like helping Darfur and she was also a volunteer in a women’s prison.
“She took steps and they weren’t giant steps, she just kept walking.”
The Islamic State group first claimed Mueller died in a Jordanian airstrike launched as retaliation for the militant’s killing of one of its pilots. Jordan denied the claim and U.S. officials have said they do not know how or when she died but are certain it was not in the airstrike.
President Barack Obama has vowed to bring those responsible to justice.
Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615)742-5470 or [email protected].