In October, American special forces killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a notorious ISIS leader who inspired his followers to murder many Christians, making them modern martyrs. These Christians demonstrated radical faith at a time when many see how religion — especially among the younger generations — is in decline. Some reports have found that Christianity has fallen to a historically low 65% of the population.
But there’s another narrative at work besides the one of Christianity’s decline. Consider the story of Kayla Mueller, one of the most famous Christian martyrs in Syria, who was also an American. I pray that her faith will show a new generation that there is a different way to live — a way that puts first God and neighbor, whatever the cost.
Kayla was a young, idealistic millennial who was abducted by ISIS while volunteering to serve the Syrian people. During her two-year imprisonment, she endured untold psychological torment, including repeated rape by al-Baghdadi himself. She is thought to have been killed in 2015, though the exact details of her death aren’t certain.
Some of her fellow captives who are now freed have recounted the strength and boldness of Kayla’s faith, how it inspired and comforted them. When Jihadi John, the British-born ISIS fighter infamous for videotaped beheadings, lied and insinuated to them that Kayla had converted to Islam, she dared to openly contradict the terrorist to his face.
At one point, Kayla was housed with several Yazidi girls who planned an escape. Despite their pleas, she refused to go with them. She did so because she knew being an American made her a valuable hostage. Her ISIS captors would do everything they could to find her, making the girls’ escape unlikely. Her faith in Jesus inspired her to put the well-being of those young Yazidi women before her own. The Yazidi girls eventually made it to safety.
Despite the trauma and horror she endured, Kayla demonstrated bravery through her unwavering faith in God. It was this love that motivated her to serve overseas in the first place — a love she demonstrated even after being taken captive.
The testimony of Kayla’s life is one of selfless love for others. From serving in India and Israel after college to assisting at a local women’s shelter and AIDS clinic at home, Kayla wasn’t one to hesitate when an opportunity to love others arose. Kayla later traveled to Turkey to serve refugees from Syria before being asked to move into directly into Syria to help.
Kayla’s story is a defiant counter-example to our culture’s narrative about faith in America. Kayla’s love for Jesus and others was deepened — not weakened — in college. She had the same opportunities before her as any of the hundreds of thousands of college students I get to speak to across the country every year.
While it isn’t uncommon for young people to drift from their faith in their college and young adult years, I’m seeing across this generation another movement — one of selfless love and service. Perhaps there are just as many people like Kayla who find their faith during this very same season in life.
This motivation fuels my work as an evangelist. In the tradition of the late Rev. Billy Graham, I’ve invested my life into reaching young people with a message of hope that can transform their entire lives. There will always be those who choose to go their own way in college — but I wonder how many had a purpose-filled view of life like Kayla? In the midst of reporting a narrative of religious decline, let’s not forget the rest of the story.
Every day, young people like Kayla are being shaped and formed on our college campuses. Their faith will continue to inspire others as they stand up to evil, endure suffering with faith, and prove that selfless love is stronger even than death.
Nick Hall is the visionary of the Together movement, author of Reset, and the founder of PULSE, a ministry at the center of the largest millennial-led prayer and outreach efforts in the world. As an evangelistic voice to the next generation, Nick has shared the Gospel to nearly four million students and speaks regularly around the world. He is the president and CEO of The Table Coalition and sits on the board of the National Association of Evangelicals.