Shelly Stamps is principal of The Vuka Group, a marketing and advertising firm, which is named after her Serbian Orthodox grandmother. Shelly worked as the marketing director for Conciliar Press for over a decade, and has had a love affair with the written word since she was a little girl. Shelly and her husband John live in downtown San Jose. They enjoy singing in their parish choir, tennis, traveling, and time spent at home with their three cats.
These are dark times. Christians in the Middle East are being slaughtered, crucified, raped, marked, and driven out of their homes. Russia and the Ukraine are battling. Ebola is battering already impoverished African nations. Beloved Robin Williams, hopeless, commits suicide. My friend just died from cancer, leaving her family bereft.
Normally optimistic, I’m plunging. Wisps of despair waft around me. I’m afraid to open up my computer and read the news.
And yet one of the most horrific stories in months, the beheading of a beloved American journalist by ISIS, has sickened me beyond words, but also given me hope. What? Great paradox. A man who wanted only to give a voice to the voiceless, a courageous, loving and humble man, Jim Foley, through his death, has given us light. By giving his life, he has given me strength: strength and resolve to live a more intentional, courageous life.
Foley embodied the American dream. Brad Pitt or George Clooney could play his character: bright, intelligent, movie-star handsome, from a prosperous and loving family. Men admired him. By all accounts, women adored him.
After building a legacy as a profoundly inspiring teacher in the inner city and receiving a Masters degree in fiction, Jim decided instead to study journalism and tell the voiceless people’s story in the Middle East as a freelance journalist. It was a risky proposition. On the frontlines in Libya, he and his fellow journalists ran into an ambush, in which South African Anton Hammerl was killed. Jim was haunted by his death. They were kidnapped and tortured by their Libyan captors.
By all accounts, Jim was grace under pressure, keeping up his fellow captives’ spirits. He was by turns strong, courageous, humorous and caring. He was tortured. He suffered. Once Jim was released, no one would blame him for moving home, settling down, maybe writing his memoirs.
But to everyone’s consternation, he’s decided to go back into the mayhem. Less than a year later, he’s going back into the pit. Clips from his time in Syria show fierce battles, chaos, bullets pinging off demolished buildings, and in one instance a soldier’s helmet, not two feet from Jim in an armored vehicle.
What kept Jim going? Sure, adrenaline is a rush. But where did he get his almost superhuman courage in this time, as CS Lewis describes, a time of men with hollow chests? He loved the truth, and he loved story telling. He was compassionate. He loved God and his fellow man. An inmate next to him in Libya would knock on the wall next to him, reading Bible verses. Every day, Jim would hear the word of God. It strengthened him. He would say the Our Father and recite the rosary, often on his knuckles.
So he goes back. And he’s taken again. For almost two years, no one knew the fate of Jim. Our beloved Bishop Paul of Aleppo, ironically from the same place where Jim reported, has been gone for almost 18 months. He was on his way to help negotiate the release of a kidnap victim with a fellow Syrian bishop, Yuhanna, when they were taken and their driver slain. It feels like an eternity. Every Sunday in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, we pray for a speedy release for these bishops, and I’m tempted to scoff. It feels like they’ve been gone for years. A speedy release? I have never met Metropolitan Paul or Bishop Yuhanna, but I am in pain for them and their families. How in the world did Jim’s loved ones endure this? He was gone almost two years.
I used to take risks. I used to follow my heart and lead my life based on my convictions. I went on a mission with an evangelical group to the former Yugoslavia in the 1980’s and was almost caught smuggling a Bible in my duffle bag. An angry guard had a rifle butting up against me in the train, roughing up both me and my belongings. Not life threatening, but scary. Another time, a friend and I brought in medical supplies to Romania, and the guards again shoved their rifles in our faces and rifled through our supplies for over an hour. I remember thinking, “Omygosh my dad would be so mad if he could see me right now.” Child’s play to what Jim endured, but I know a little of what it was like to put myself on the line for my fellow man, for what I believed God was telling me to do. I was scared, but I also felt alive.
So now I’m safely ensconced in my townhome in Silicon Valley, trying to figure out how to one day retire and pay for our next vacation. And then Jim Foley reminds me of what matters, what it means to be truly human. It’s time to wake up and live a life that matters. Jim gave his life, not only as a reflection of Christ, but to wake up the slumbering West to the genocide going on in the Middle East. He shone a light on the sufferings of those without a voice.
As I write this article, another brave and beautiful man, journalist Steven Sotloff, has also been beheaded by evil ISIS. Like Jim, he had a passion to tell people’s stories, and to give a voice to the voiceless.
I’m haunted by Jim, and by his goodness. I ask Jim to intercede for me, because I know that he is already with God and his Saints. Give me courage, Jim, for these are dark days and you shine as a beacon of light.
O God of spirits and of all flesh, Who hast trampled down death and overthrown the Devil, and given life to Thy world, do Thou, the same Lord, give rest to the soul of Thy departed servant Jim in a place of brightness, a place of refreshment, a place of repose, where all sickness, sighing, and sorrow have fled away. May Jim’s memory be eternal!
Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network. You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.