The Rev. Jacques Hamel was recently killed today near Rouen, France, the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431 for living out her faith.
The priest was slain in an attack by two armed men during morning Mass.
According to news reports, fellow priests called Father Jacques “a good man” who brought “a ray of sunshine” to meetings. Even at 86, Father Jacques did not plan to retire.
“Have you ever seen a retired pastor?” he’d asked. “I will work until my last breath.”
And he did.
This latest attack hits home in many ways.
Church is a sanctuary.
It is a place where we go to confess our wrongs and make things right with God. I want to feel safe in church.
It brings another fear as well.
One of the people I admire most is a priest like Father Jacques, serving in one of the world’s most volatile contexts: Iraq.
Today I mourn the death of Father Jacques and I worry for my friend, Father Daniel.
A Priest and a Provider
I met Father Daniel in late spring in Erbil in the Kurdish Republic of Iraq. I was instantly drawn to him. It was that smile.
As soon as he smiled, which was immediately, he reminded me of my brother-in-law, Michael, who died too young of scleroderma.
Michael was the family’s favorite. He was outgoing and happy. The twinkle in his eye let you know that he was about to make everyone laugh.
Father Daniel has that same twinkle. He has hair like Michael—lots of thick black hair and brown eyes always on the brink of a smile.
And the best thing about Father Daniel is just like Michael—when you are with him, there’s no other place you’d rather be.
Father Daniel was preaching Mass at Mar Elia church on August 7, 2014, a warm Sunday morning. When it finished, he stepped outside.
“The place was filled with Christian IDPs [internally displaced people],” he says. “I was shocked. I didn’t know what happened.”
He soon found out. Overnight, as many as 120,000 Christians had fled from the area around Mosul to escape the fighting.
“We got 1,600 people here at Mar Elia,” says Father Daniel.
Father Daniel turned from pastor to protector overnight. It was a lot of responsibility for a young priest. Father Daniel is only 26 but he snapped into action.
“It was really hot here,” he says. People were tired, scared, and hungry. They needed food, shelter, and support.
Alongside Father Douglas, a Catholic priest at Mar Elia, Father Daniel worked to provide for their needs.
“We were here for 24 hours [at a time]. We didn’t sleep.”
They started by renting all the wedding halls in Erbil. “We opened a Child-friendly space,” he says. “We did classes in music, flute, guitar, violin, and dancing and drama and drawing.”
The children began to calm down. “What happened to them was a big trauma,” says Father Daniel.
They stopped thinking about the war and began dreaming again.
World Vision helped Father Daniel and Father Douglas meet the needs of the new tenants who now live on the lawn of the church.
Where there used to be gardens, there are now small trailers—little boxes where people live without bathrooms and kitchens. World Vision put in a generator for power, as well as bathrooms,, showers, and a water system for the internally displaced people. World Vision even put in a volleyball court and swing sets so the children can play in a place that feels somewhat normal.
World Vision provides mothers with food vouchers so they can cook nutritious meals for their children on camp stoves outside their trailers.
Father Daniel is now more than a priest. He is like a father to the hundreds of children who live in the camp. He knows each child by name. When he steps outside, they flock to him, holding his hand, eager to see his smile. They call him “Papa.”
Like a Brother
I posted a photograph of Father Daniel on Facebook while I was in Iraq. I told my husband’s family that I felt like I was with their brother Michael again. I’d met someone as warm and funny and engaging.
My sister-in-law asked me if Father Daniel would pray for her. She’s been battling cancer.
The next day I told Father Daniel about her request. His smile turned serious. “Please write down her name.” I did and handed it to him.
“I will pray for her on Saturday during Mass in Aramaic,” he said. “The language of Jesus.”
Father Daniel preaches in Aramaic. It’s what Jesus spoke to his disciples. He jokes with me that when Jesus comes back, he’ll translate for me. I’d like that.
Today’s attack is troubling me so. We live in a world where the things we took for granted are no more. But in meeting Father Daniel, I learned that one thing is for sure: Faith drives out fear.
So while I am afraid for my friend, he is not afraid for himself. He’s too busy living the kind of life Jesus would have him live. There are songs to sing, hands to hold, and volleyballs to serve. There is Aramaic to teach the children and sermons to prepare.
This is a man living out his faith in the hardest of times. Shouldn’t I do the same?
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