Faithful Departed: James Foley

U.S. journalist James Foley is seen during a 2011 press conference in Boston. (CNS photo/Steven Senne, AP photo via Marquette University)
U.S. journalist James Foley is seen during a 2011 press conference in Boston. (CNS photo/Steven Senne, AP photo via Marquette University)
It is a story we have heard many times before. Someone is brutally killed and paradoxically lives on as a symbol of hope. It is the story of peacekeepers, martyrs, leaders of heroic courage, and even ordinary citizens who dare to make their lives about sharing truth and seeking justice. It is the story of James Foley.

I never personally knew Foley. Like him, I attended Marquette University and studied journalism, his eventual profession. And like people the world over, I was shocked to learn he was murdered at the hands of Islamic State militants after nearly two years in captivity.

Foley, who worked with Teach For America and obtained an MFA in creative writing before studying journalism at Northwestern University, had spent 44 days incarcerated while reporting in Libya. His work for GlobalPost in both Libya and Syria contains the gritty, horrific details we associate with war zones. In a piece he wrote for Marquette Magazine following his release, however, Foley touches on the faith which sustained him during his imprisonment and, perhaps, drove him in the first place to shine a spotlight on people who are marginalized and oppressed.

“If nothing else,” Foley wrote, “prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us. It didn’t make sense, but faith did.”

To many, it was unfathomable that he would wish to reenter a conflict area. But Foley seemed unable to stay far from the front lines. He “was chafing to return” to Libya, said GlobalPost President Philip Balboni in a Washington Post article. Foley reported on Muammar Gaddafi’s downfall before eventually heading to Syria, where he was captured in November 2012.

The many memorials and articles about Foley following his death offer a consistent portrait: a hardworking, professional, generous and thoughtful man who cared deeply about people who were suffering. Several accounts mentioned his efforts to raise funds for the children of a fellow journalist killed in Libya.

“Everything he could share, he would,” recalled Nicolas Henin, a French journalist held captive with Foley in Syria.

“Jim would be on anyone’s team, contributing his signature mix of wit, generosity, compassion, and dedication,” remembered Clare Morgana Gillis, who was imprisoned with him in Libya. “Whether [someone had] met [him] days or years ago, each [person] walked away certain they’d just met someone extraordinary.”

“Jim’s life challenges us all to love and forgive one another, and to make this world a better place,” wrote his family. “His bold commitment to bearing witness of the suffering in conflict zones and his extraordinary ability to befriend others drives us to somehow find a way to keep his memory alive.”

For his friends and family, and those of us who never had the opportunity to know him, James Foley leaves a stunning model of what it means to be, as St. Ignatius encouraged, a man or woman for others. He leaves a remarkable example of how far one can go to ensure that the least of these brothers and sisters of ours are not ignored or forgotten. And he shows us that his spirit is, as his friend Peter Bouckaert wrote, “the beauty of [a] life well lived and not its brutal end.”