The Witness of James Foley

A fellow teacher and journalist reflects on the faith and courage of James Foley.

Like countless others throughout the world, I was deeply disturbed to read the recent news of journalist James Foley’s murder at the hands of Islamic State terrorists. Death and suffering in the Middle East has become tragically routine, a reality we’re confronted with every time we turn on the daily talk shows, flip through the morning paper, or scroll through blogs and news sites.

In the days since he was killed, however, I have been inspired by the way others have come forward to speak openly about Foley’s deep faith, his affection for at-risk populations, and courage in the face of real danger.

Several articles published in the wake of Foley’s death have quoted a letter he wrote to his alma mater, Marquette University, explaining how he had turned to prayer when he was captured for the first time, in 2011. Foley was reporting on the civil war in Libya for the Global Post when he and a fellow journalist, Clare Morgana Gillis, were captured and held for more than 40 days.

“Clare and I prayed together out loud. It felt energizing to speak our weaknesses and hopes together, as if in a conversation with God, rather than silently and alone,” wrote Foley in the letter.

It’s not hard to identify the wellspring of faith Foley drew from. According to an article published by the LA Times, the same day Diane Foley learned her son had been beheaded by Islamic terrorists, she asked her parish priest, “Father, pray for me that I don’t become bitter. I don’t want to hate.”

I shudder at these words, thinking how easily I have fallen into feelings of bitterness and hatred with not an ounce of the justification this woman could reasonably claim.

As I read about this horrible tragedy, I struggled to think what I could do to somehow honor the life of this man who paid the ultimate price in pursuit of justice and truth. I decided if there’s one thing I can do to ensure the terrorists who murdered James Foley don’t win the battle they are fighting, I can look at Foley’s example of self-sacrifice and prayer, and reflect on how I can best respond to the suffering, injustice, and brutality I witness in my own life.

Although I never knew James Foley or anyone in his family, I felt immediately connected to his life when I started to learn about the path that led him to report at the heart of global conflict, listening and sharing the stories of Syrian refugees who are caught in the mire of a war they want no part in.

We grew up in the same rural New Hampshire community and like James Foley, I’ve spent my early professional life working as a teacher and a journalist, although admittedly I’ve always done so in the safety of an American classroom or newsroom, far removed from the battlefields Foley bravely entered to meet the suffering and vulnerable face to face.

As they grieve the murder of their son, John and Diane Foley have leaned on the support of Holy Rosary Parish, the Roman Catholic Church where I was baptized and confirmed. Friends of mine who knew the Foley family have been memorializing James’s life with heartfelt Facebook posts and petitions of prayer for his family and many friends.

Another of the many beautifully written tributes to Foley’s life, this one at USA Today, highlighted the way Foley’s life held up the ideal of journalism and a free press as one of the essential pillars of democracy.

it’s easy to adopt a jaded outlook when it comes to the state of journalism. But Foley’s life and death remind us that there are men and women who courageously enter the most broken parts of our world in a deliberate effort to shed light on the hardship of others — not from a distance — but up close, in the midst of the poverty, pain, and violence that we read about from behind our screens.

Loving fathers are known to heap praise upon their sons, but no one would argue John Foley’s assertion that his son was truly “a martyr for freedom.”

I pray James Foley finds the peace and ultimate joy that was absent from the many places he worked and witnessed the incredible brokenness of man.

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