Kayla Mueller's faith: What was God's role in life of American killed while being held by Islamic State?

Is there a holy ghost in media coverage of Kayla Mueller's life?

The 26-year-old American was killed while being held hostage by Islamic State extremists, her family and the White House confirmed Tuesday.

In a letter released by her family and cited frequently in news reports, Mueller referred to "our creator" and mentioned God five times.

The Los Angeles Times highlighted a portion of the letter:

“By God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall. I have been shown in darkness, light [and] have learned that even in prison, one can be free,” she wrote. “I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it.”

Meanwhile, Reuters noted:

Mueller's family quoted from another letter she sent her father on his birthday in 2011: "I will always seek God. Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering. I've known for some time what my life's work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering."

But journalists struggled to uncover more concrete details about Mueller's specific faith and religious background. 

Some major news organizations — including The Associated Press, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post — avoided any mention of God at all.

A few news reports, including this one from the New York Times, did reference Mueller's involvement in a campus ministry:

Kathleen Day, head of the United Christian ministry at Northern Arizona University, remembered how Ms. Mueller used her blog as a way to encourage her peers to get involved. She did not just write a blog post and leave it at that: She sent it to friends and family, asking them to forward it to others and to take action.
“It’s not that she’s so angelic,” Ms. Day said. “She saw things and did what she could, whatever she could, however she could.”

Most news accounts focused on Mueller's humanitarian "calling."

CNN reported:

Mueller made it her life's work to help others. She graduated from Northern Arizona University in 2009, and worked with humanitarian groups in northern India, Israel and Palestinian territories, a family spokeswoman said.
"She had a quiet, calming presence. She was a free spirit, always standing up for those who were suffering and wanting to be their voice. ... Kayla's calling was to help those who were suffering, whether in her home in Prescott, or on the other side of the world," her aunts, Lori Lyon and Terri Crippes, said Tuesday.

In general, media reports on Mueller's faith — if that aspect of her life was explored at all — could be described as vague. 

"Her letter feels almost spiritual but not religious to me, no mention of Jesus," said one Godbeat pro who was frustrated in attempts to track down information on Mueller's religion.

Alas, a major newspaper in Mueller's home state — The Arizona Republic seems to solve the mystery:

Andrew Shepherd became friends with Mueller when the two worshiped together at the NAU campus ministry.
After Mueller's roommate dragged her to a ministry gathering, she became a regular at activities and helped Shepherd prepare the group's weekly dinners, he said. They bonded as they cut vegetables and talked about everything from faith to politics.
Mueller was unwavering in her faith, Shepherd said, but he learned that she struggled with the concept of organized religion and dogma.
"She saw God in a bigger sense than that," said Shepherd, now a pastor in Portland, Ore. "God was something that you met in the world. I think she was the authentic seeker. She was still trying to figure out who God was all of the time."
The two were part of a group of ministry members who traveled to Guatemala on a humanitarian effort in 2009. They helped build shelters out of recycled plastic bottles and visited slums where the residents eked out a living mining trash dumps for sellable goods and materials. Shepherd said they were both struck by the country's dramatic inequality after touring a school in the slums and a wealthy private university on the other side of Guatemala City.
"She was ... incredibly kind and open, but so moved by other people," Shepherd said. "That was her faith, this need to help other people who were hurting."

Is there a holy ghost in media coverage of Mueller's life? Perhaps. But the complexity of her faith and her apparent struggle with organized religion help explain why reporters would find that angle difficult.

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