Beauty in the Tragedy

My phone vibrated violently twice against my thigh as it lay in my pocket.  Initially I decided to ignore it as I was coaching pregame warmups.  I watched attentively as my players continued to smack soft toss into the nets behind our dugout.  As I watched, my phone vibrated twice more.  I decided to check it and saw that I had a missed called and a voicemail from one of my best friends in college, Sam.

“When you get this, please call me right away.  Thanks.”

I found the voicemail rather odd, so I called back immediately but there was no answer on the end.  Shrugging my shoulders, I placed the phone back in my pocket and walked back towards my team when my phone began to vibrate again.

“Hello,” I said as I cleared my throat.

“Hey,” said Sam in a serious tone.  “I wanted to get ahold of you before you saw it on the news.  Have you been following this ISIS situation?”

“Yes.   What’s up?”

“They just released a new video, and at the end they threaten to kill Pete.”  I sat in silence as I tried to process this information from Sam.  “He has been captured for about a year, and the family has known for quite some time.”

I sat in the outfield grass as Sam and I continued to talk for a few more minutes.  It could not be real, I thought to myself.  How can this be real?  Anger and sorrow immediately consumed by mind.

_________________________________________

It was an early morning in Uganda in July of 2012.  The sunrise, per usual, was unlike anything I had ever seen before.  Although I had been in Uganda for a month, I was still not used to the vibrant sunrises. Shades of orange, yellow, red, and purple dressed the sky every single morning; each outfit she wore was more unique and beautiful than the last, constantly leaving me in awe.  On this particular day, I was up early because of some anxiety I had with teaching.  I was supposed to be teaching a big lesson in a couple of days and needed to prepare.  The first class I taught on this day did not start until 1:00 PM, so I took advantage of some much needed free time.  I waved down a Boda Boda (motorcycle taxi) and he took me to one of the only places in Gulu with reliable WiFi, The Coffee Hut.  Before I entered, I stopped at a bakery next door and ordered a large piece of banana bread for breakfast.  Two thousand shillings (less than a dollar) for half a loaf of bread was a steal.  After grabbing breakfast, I sat in the Coffee Hut, nervously preparing a PowerPoint lesson that I had to teach my students at Sir Samuel Baker School the next day.  I was teaching a section of Computers on top of the two sections of History and Language Arts that I had.  Although I loved History, I felt like computers could really make an impact on these students as most did not have any sort of basic computer skills.

I continued to work on my lesson, preparing several screen shots as I slowly bit into the moist banana bread.  It was delicious.  After about two hours of work, I decided to take a break and upload a few photos to Facebook so that my friends, family, and supporters could keep track of what I was doing in Africa.  As I aimlessly tried to upload photos on the slow Internet connection, a message suddenly popped up.  The sound of the alert startled me, as no one in the United States would be awake at this time.  I closed out of the photo uploader and saw that the message was from my friend Pete.

“Hey man, just saw that you’re in Africa.  That’s great!  What are you doing there?”

Pete and I talked for about 20 minutes.  The conversation was casual.  After asking me several questions about what I was doing, he began to tell me where life had taken him.  He told me that he had started a non-profit to help Syrian refugees called SERA.  He humbly made it seem like what he was doing was not a big deal.  He was living in Lebanon teaching first aid and providing aid to people affected by the war in Syria.  I knew that he was in the Middle East, but I had no idea about all of the great things he was doing as a humanitarian.  He did not brag or gloat, or even ask for money, he was casually just talking like we had a hundred times before.  This time, however, he seemed slightly different.  He was happier.

That was the last conversation I would ever have with Peter Kassig.

_____________________________________________

I met Pete during my time as a student at Hanover College.  Hanover is a small school; there were just fewer than 1,000 students during my time there.  In essence, everyone knew everyone.  Some people hated the small atmosphere, but many loved it.  I loved it.  The sense of community was unlike anything I had felt at the much larger university I had transferred from after two years.

Pete started hanging out in our fraternity house during my second year at Hanover and everyone immediately took a liking to him.  He had a very outgoing personality and was so eloquently spoken that it was impossible not to like him.  The way he could make anyone he talked to feel respected, truly like an equal, was something admirable.  He joined our small fraternity almost immediately, and was a huge part of some of the best memories of our lives.

To say Pete and I were best friends would be a lie, but it would also be insufficient to say that we were merely just fraternity brothers.  We were friends.  We talked a lot, sometimes about nothing, other times about politics and changing the world, and many times about girls.

The Pete I knew was deeply passionate and courageous.  He was never afraid to speak his mind, but more importantly, he would always listen.  I admired him for the way he could speak out when he thought something was wrong without worrying about stepping on another’s toes.  He was the right amount of stubborn.  It is a trait I am still working on today at the age of 27…he had mastered it by 22.

We had fun.  On many Wednesday nights, Pete would host dance parties in his room.  We would participate in hallway boxing matches and hallway long jump contests.  Halloween parties.  80s parties.  Pickup games of essentially any sport.  Airsoft wars (yes, as college men many of us had airsoft battles in the fraternity house).  A group of us even watched President Obama become sworn in for the first time while hanging out in Pete’s room.

There was much more to this young man, however, than those dance parties and laughs we so often shared.  Whenever I really talked with Pete on a deeper level, I could feel a wound from his past slowly eating away at him.  He had been in the Army and served in Iraq; he had been divorced.  From time to time, he struggled with memories from his past, but he never lost sight of what he wanted in the future.  He wanted to make an impact, to be a positive force in the world.  He was searching for a sense of purpose.  His desire for a greater good would eventually take him away from Hanover and the United States, and we all knew it was only a matter of time.

When I talked with Pete on the Internet while I was in Uganda, I became extremely happy for him.  He had finally found that sense of purpose for which he had been searching.  He had started his own non-profit organization, and he was even featured in a CNN report in June 2012.  He was doing exactly what he had dreamed to do, to help others.

_____________________________________________

After I received the phone call from Sam, I became angry.  How could such a great humanitarian be forced to suffer through this tragic twist?  How could his captors threaten to take away such a bright light from the world?  I thought of his family and the horror they have been dealing over the past year.

For six weeks, I sifted through news reports on a regular basis, hoping I would finally come across one reporting his release.  For six weeks, I feared every morning when I woke up and looked at the news.  In the end, the terrible threat against Peter’s life by ISIS became a tragic truth.  But maybe it is my mistake for looking at it like a tragedy.  Maybe it really is not so tragic after all.  Peter died doing what he loved…he died because he felt a calling to help others and acted it.  He put his money where his mouth was, unafraid to put his words into action.  I am not so sure he would do anything differently if he had a chance to change it.  How many people can say that when they are about to die?  Maybe it was my mistake in being angry…and do not get me wrong, part of me is still very angry – yet, I think it would be doing Pete an injustice to let anger be the first or only emotion we feel.  He died for his love of people, and the entire world has witnessed his beautiful story.

In reality, Peter is not dead.  His captors may have physically killed him, but they will never be able to take away who he was and his impact on the world.  His legacy lives through all of the lives he touched during his short 26 years.  The amazing part about his impact is that the lives he touched are more than just in Indiana, or even the United States.  He truly has had a global impact.  By killing Peter Kassig, ISIS has done nothing but help write a small chapter in a wonderful story; a story of which Pete was always the author, even in captivity.

His story is not over.  The last chapter is not yet written.  It is now our responsibility to conduct our lives with the lessons taught to us by Pete.  To live with courage, not fear…to follow our dreams and find our purpose…to be selfless.  Peter is not dead, and will never be, so long as we continue his legacy.  Let the anger pass, and like Peter, live life with bravery and love.

Thank you, Pete, for everything you taught me.  Rest in peace, my friend.  Your light lives on.

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