Thursday, August 21, 2014

James Foley: "Prayer Was the Glue That Enabled My Freedom, An Inner Freedom"

"Prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom,
an inner freedom . . ."

Photojournalist James Foley wrote these words in 2011, when reflecting on the 44 days he and two others were held captive in Libya. He went on to say that prayer, in this instance, also enabled "the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us." He acknowledged that such a turn-of-events made no sense, but that faith did.

Shortly after his return to the U.S. from Libya, Foley, who was raised Catholic and graduated from Marquette University in 1996, visited and spoke to members of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, his family's parish in Rochester, New Hampshire. "I knew you were praying for me," he told the community.

Foley soon returned to the Middle East, though not before raising $12,000 for the Syrian American Medical Society. On November 22, 2012, he was abducted while reporting for GlobalPost and Agence France-Presse on the ongoing civil war in Syria. For almost two years nothing was heard from him, although one source says that he was "moved a number of times and passed through the hands of various captors."

Didier Francois, a veteran French war correspondent who was held with Foley for nine months before being released with three other French hostages in April, told the Reuters news agency that Foley "was an extraordinary person with a strong character. He was a pleasant companion in detention because he was solid and collective. He never gave in to the pressure and violence of the kidnappers."

Another released Frenchmen, Nicolas Henin, told France's Express magazine that Foley had been treated worse than the other captives, after militants searched his computer and discovered his brother was in the U.S. Air Force. "Because of that and as he was American he got extra bad treatment. He became the whipping boy of the jailers, but he remained implacable," said Henin.

The uncertainty and silence surrounding Foley's fate was tragically broken this past Tuesday when a gruesome video was posted online showing him being beheaded by a masked member of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Notes the New York Times:

Titled “A Message to America,” the video shows [Foley] kneeling in a desert landscape, clad in an orange jumpsuit — an apparent reference to the uniforms worn by prisoners at the American military detention camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Standing to his left is a masked ISIS fighter, who begins speaking in English, with what sounds like an East London accent. Pulling out a knife, he says that Mr. Foley’s execution is in retaliation for the recent American airstrikes ordered by President Obama against the extremist group in Iraq. . . . [After Foley's decapitation] the video concludes with the fighter threatening to kill Steven Sotloff, another American freelance journalist, who was being held alongside Mr. Foley. Mr. Sotloff is seen kneeling in the same position, in the same landscape and wearing the same style of orange-colored jumpsuit. “The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision,” the fighter says.

The Obama administration has confirmed the authenticity of the video, and the Foley family has paid tribute to their son, noting that James was "a martyr, a martyr for freedom."

John and Diane Foley also praised their son's "deep courage" and his passion for reporting from the front lines. John Foley said that his son always sought to "humanize" the people and the struggles he witnessed. "He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people," Diane Foley added.

In London, Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy, who worked alongside James in 2011, echoed Diane Foley's sentiments, noting that James had shone "a light into . . . dark places where dictators thrive."

In paying tribute to her friend and colleague, Real News reporter Jessica Desvarieux recounted how "Jim wanted to speak to the [Syrian] people so that we would get a sense of what's really going on. . . . He wanted to share with the world [their] stories."

James Foley himself told the BBC in 2012 that, "I'm drawn to trying to explore the untold stories. I'm drawn to the human rights side. . . . So many of the reporters are. . . . That's the inspiring thing about it."

These words of James' remind me of broadcast journalist Amy Goodman's contention that journalism, and the listening and sharing of other people's stories that it involves, is a "sacred responsibility."

Since news broke about James Foley's death I've been drawn to his story and, in particular, the role that prayer played in his life and the life of his family.

After the ordeal that he and his two colleagues experienced in Libya, for instance, he wrote of how during his time of captivity he had come to trust "some cosmic reach of the universe" to help him connect with his loved ones, his mother in particular. Drawing on his Catholic upbringing, James used the praying of the rosary to facilitate this experience of communication and connection.

Each day brought increasing worry that our moms would begin to panic. My colleague, Clare, was supposed to call her mom on her birthday, which was the day after we were captured. I had still not fully admitted to myself that my mom knew what had happened. But I kept telling Clare my mom had a strong faith.

I prayed she’d know I was OK. I prayed I could communicate through some cosmic reach of the universe to her.

I began to pray the rosary. It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed. 
I said 10 Hail Marys between each Our Father. It took a long time, almost an hour to count 100 Hail Marys off on my knuckles. And it helped to keep my mind focused.

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.

James' words bring to mind those of Catholic theologian Michael Morwood. You may recall that just yesterday I shared an excerpt from Morwood's book It's Time. The focus of this particular excerpt was on "the Divine Presence," Morwood's term for the ancient spiritual understanding of God "always here, always and everywhere active in an expanding universe."

Of course, if God, the Divine Presence, is indeed "always and everywhere active," then those open to this presence and action are always connected to one another in a profoundly beautiful and mysterious way, one that not even death can put a stop to. I also believe that regardless of whether or not we acknowledge or recognize it, we are all held within, and connected with all creation through, the Divine Presence.

Prayer doesn't create this connection, this mystical oneness, as it's already and always there. What prayer can and does do, however, is attune us to and heighten our awareness of this wondrous connection. Through prayer we open ourselves to what author James Conlon describes as the "embrace of divine energy that enfolds our presence and heals our pain." It's an embrace that, as James Foley and his loved ones experienced, holds us together and provides strength, courage and mercy – a mercy which we can, like Jesus, extend even to those who grievously hurt us. I was quite moved and inspired to hear James' mother, Diane, say in an interview that in the wake of her son's murder she is praying (and asking others to pray) that she doesn't become bitter. "I don't want to hate," she says.

I hope and pray that throughout the duration of James Foley's imprisonment in Syria and right up to the moment of his death and his entering fully into the Divine Presence, that he knew that "inner freedom" he spoke about during his previous captivity in Libya. I hope and pray that he knew liberation from all that sought to undermine or break his sustaining connection, his relationship, with God; that he experienced the strength and love of the Divine Presence and thus of his family who, though half the world away, were still very much connected to him . . . and will always remain connected to him.

I purposefully chose not to include in this post any stills from the video of James' execution. As brave as he was in the moments leading up to his death, depictions of him bound and next to the psychopath who would soon brutally murder him is not how I wish to remember James Foley.

Instead I share some of the images that James took while doing what he loved most: documenting and humanizing the people and struggles he encountered while reporting on the front lines of various conflicts in the Middle East. These photos are from that part of James' Facebook page that is open to the public. They were taken in Iraq in 2008 and 2009, and show what a gifted photojournalist and perceptive human being James Foley was.

May his spirit be one with the transforming love that is the Divine Presence.

Updates and Related Off-site Links:
American Killed in Syria a Journalist to the Core – Rik Stevens (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, August 19, 2014).
James Foley: Focus on Humanity Amid Suffering – Dave Clark (AFP, August 20, 2014).
James Foley Remembered as "Brave and Tireless" Journalist – Brian Stelter (CNN, August 21, 2014).
For James Foley, Covering Combat Zones a "Siren Song," Despite Time Jailed in Libya Prison – Sasha Goldstein (New York Daily News, August 19, 2014).
James Foley and the Last Journalists in Syria – Uri Friedman (The Atlantic, August 19, 2014).
Why Did Islamic State Militants Execute James Foley? – Howard LaFranchi (Christian Science Monitor, August 20, 2014).
Militants Use British Killer as Propaganda – Jill Lawless and Danica Kirka (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, August 20, 2014).
British Muslims Blame Jihadi Subculture After Beheading Video – Kate Holton and Raheem Salman (Reuters, August 21, 2014).
Identifying James Foley's Executioner Seen as Possible, if Difficult – Christopher Werth (Los Angeles Times, August 21, 2014).
James Foley's Parents: "He Was a Martyr, a Martyr for Freedom" – Dylan Stableford (Yahoo! News, August 20, 2014).
James Foley's Parents: "He Was Courageous to the End"CBS News (August 20, 2014).
Foley Describes Captivity in Letter to Family – Associated Press (August 24, 2014).
Slain Journalist's Employer Publishes E-mail to Family from Islamic State – Reuters via Yahoo! News (August 21, 2014).
In Case of Slain Journalist, Negotiations, Silence, Then a Chilling Warning – Warren Strobel and John Irish (Reuters, August 21, 2014).
From Daniel Pearl to James Foley: The Modern Tactic of Islamist Beheadings – Adam Taylor (The Washington Post, August 20, 2014).
After James Foley Murder, An Effort to Stamp Out Jihadi Twitter Accounts – Elizabeth Dickinson (Christian Science Monitor, August 20, 2014).
Officials: U.S. Rescue Mission Failed – Julie Pace (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, August 20, 2014).
How the U.S. and Europe Failed James Foley – David Rohde (The Atlantic, August 20, 2014).
Foley Captors' Ransom Demand Revives Debate Over U.S. No-pay Policy – Ariel Zirulnick (Christian Science Monitor, August 21, 2014).
The Race to Save James Foley: The Inside Story – Cassandra Vinograd (NBC News, August 21, 2014).
James Foley’s Brother: The U.S. Could Have Done More for Jim – Liz Goodwin (Yahoo! News, August 22, 2014).
Reporter’s Execution Could Unleash U.S. Against ISIS – Rob Garver (The Fiscal Times via Yahoo! News, August 20, 2014).
Obama's Mission Against ISIS Just Fundamentally Changed – Brett LoGiurato (Business Insider via Yahoo! Finance, August 21, 2014).
White House Calls Foley Killing "A Terrorist Attack Against Our Country" Russell Berman (The Wire via Yahoo! News, August 22, 2014).
Jim Foley, Faith, and Heroic Journalism – Sarah Christian (Millennial, August 20, 2014).
Remembering James Foley's Remarkable Faith – Antonia Blumberg (The Huffington Post, August 20, 2014).
Faith, Prayer Sources of Strength for Slain U.S. Journalist, His Family – Catholic News Service (August 20, 2014).
Priest Comforts Foley Family After Killing of JournalistCatholic Herald (August 20, 2014).
Pope Phones Family of Slain U.S. Journalist – Francis X. Rocca (Catholic News Service, August 21, 2014).
Bishop: James Foley Opened Our Eyes – Jeff McMenemy (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, August 24, 2014).
James Foley, Marquette ’96, Writing on the Power of Prayer – Frank Weathers (Patheos, August 19, 2014).
James Foley Speaks to Students About Journalism, Courage and What Inspires Him (2011) – Republished August 20, 2014 at The Huffington Post.
1,071 Murdered Since 1992: More Must Be Done to Protect Journalists Like James Foley – Howard Tumber (The Conversation, August 21, 2014).
Top Islamic Authority: Extremists Are No "Islamic State" – Sarah El Deeb (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, August 24, 2014).
Militants beheaded Steven Sotloff after James Foley – Lara Jakes (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, September 3, 2014).
Foley's Mother Felt Like 'Annoyance' to U.S. Government – AFP via Yahoo! News (September 12, 2014).
Steven Sotloff's Family Speaks Out: Parents Told They Could Be Prosecuted for Paying Ransom to IS – Michael Isikoff (Yahoo! News, September 12, 2014).
James Foley on the Dehumanization of War: Acclaimed Filmmaker Haskell Wexler Shares 2012 InterviewDemocracy Now! (September 12, 2014).
Video Shows Slaying of British Aid Worker – Zeina Karam and Sylvia Hui (Associated Press via Yahoo! News, September 12, 2014).
ISIS Hostage Executioner 'Jihadi John' Identified by the FBI – Polly Mosendz (The Wire via Yahoo! News, September 25, 2014).
The Horror Before the Beheadings: ISIS Hostages Endured Torture and Dashed Hopes, Freed Cellmates Say – Rukmini Callimachi (The New York Times, October 25, 2014).
James Foley Remembered with Touching In Memoriam Video at Online Journalism Awards – Ryan Grenoble (The Huffington Post, October 30, 2014).
Debating a Change of Faith Under Brutal Captivity – Jim Yardley (The New York Times, February 21, 2015).
Beheaded Journalist James Foley’s Mother Says He’d Be 'Devastated' by Revenge Killing of 'Jihadi John' – Jordan Chariton (The Wrap, November 13, 2015).
Life on the Front Lines: A View from James Foley’s CameraGlobalPost (August 8, 2015).
'Jihadi John' Death: Islamic State Says Mohammed Emwazi KilledBBC News (January 19, 2016).
Covering War to End War: New Film Recounts Life and Legacy of James Foley, Journalist Killed by ISISDemocracy Now! (January 28, 2016).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Michael Morwood on the Divine Presence
Prayer and the Experience of God in an Ever-Unfolding Universe
Thoughts on Prayer in a "Summer of Strife"
Karl Rahner on the Need for Prayer
Prayer: Both a Consolation and a Demand
Be Just in My Heart
The Most Sacred and Simple Mystery of All


Karen Knight said...

As a mother whose daughter has just graduated and is about to start a career in this same field of journalism, this story makes my blood run cold, but I admire the courageous and humanitarian spirit of this brave young man who gave his life in the pursuit of the truth and uncovering the human side of this dreadful conflict, which was so important to him and for the world to become aware of, to understand.

Bless him and his family and friends. May his name be honoured and his mother be enfolded in the love he had for her and the prayers and loving energy coming from the hearts of all who care.

Thanks for your wonderful post, Michael.

Kathleen Olsen said...

Wonderful post, Michael. I have also been moved by his tireless faith and witness to love.

Dee said...

The Syrian people loved James Foley because he risked his life to expose Assad's war crimes. He also raised a substantial amount of money for the hospital in Aleppo for SAMS. He was beloved by them and now I am hearing a lot of anger at Assad who is being blamed for turning him over to ISIS, and to ISIS for his brutal murder. Such a tragic loss of a talented and committed humanitarian. He is a martyr for freedom.

Terry Burke said...

Thank you. Thoughtful post and an amazing man.