By Roxane B. Salonen
I didn’t know Sam Traut, the 24-year-old brutally murdered at his Fargo home recently by a stranger who had come knocking, asking for a glass of water.
But through his friends, I have come to know Sam and have grieved his tragic end with the rest of our community. He is my brother in Christ, and I can’t help but feel the loss of a family member.
One of his good friends wrote me privately shortly before Sam’s name was released to the public. “He was one of the best men I know and a wonderful example of Christ,” he said.
Those who knew him have described Sam as humble, generous, gentle and selfless — qualities I’ve spent my life hoping to acquire. By all accounts, this young man from Sartell, Minn., had stored up plenty of all that in a short amount of time.
As I contemplated Sam’s precious life and learned what he stood for, the word “martyr” kept emerging in my mind. Certainly, examples of martyrdom abound. In the past and now, people have been and are being killed simply because of their religious beliefs.
But could Sam be named as such?
The week of his death, I was reading a manuscript written by my friend Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda for a pre-publication endorsement.
Due out in September, her book, “The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run,” details the life of Stanley Rother, a Catholic priest martyred in Guatemala in 1981 whose cause for canonization is being reviewed.
Through it, I’ve been introduced to a humble man who grew up on a farm in Oklahoma, and discovered his life’s mission in the poor, indigenous people of Guatemala.
Father Rother died at the hands of a group of armed “Ladinos,” non-indigenous who saw his mission work as a threat, despite the priest’s pure intentions and non-political aims.
With Sam’s death whirling through my mind, the parallels became apparent.
Like the priest had in Guatemala, Sam lived his life for Christ here in Fargo, forgoing worldly success to pour himself into others as a college-campus Bible study instructor and mentor.
Recently, Sam had been on a mission trip to Peru, which undoubtedly renewed his zeal for servanthood.
In Father Rother’s case, he knew he had a mark on his back and willingly put himself in harm’s way to save others.
The man who appeared on Sam’s doorstep in the wee hours of June 23 likely did not target him because of his faith, and it’s unlikely Sam had time to witness to him, at least not through words. But perhaps martyrdom can happen through a less explicit witness, too.
In his blog, “God With Us,” Sam’s friend Norm Betland draws similarities between Sam’s life and death and that of his own patron saint, Saint Meinrad of Einsiedeln, Switzerland, who was murdered in 861 by two wayfarers seeking hospitality.
“Though Meinrad was suspicious of the men, he saw Christ in them, and so shared what he had with them, only to be betrayed, and bludgeoned to death,” Norm writes, explaining that the saint is sometimes referred to as “the martyr of hospitality,” despite not having been martyred in the conventional sense.
“He was not killed because he was a Christian, but was killed because he was a Christian,” Norm explains, noting that in that sense, “Sam is a martyr because he was killed while he was proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in its most simple and profound reality.”
Another friend posed that, for all we know, the killer’s brief moments in Sam’s home may have affected him, possibly leading him to turn himself in rather than continue his killing spree.
It’s conceivable that when he looked around Sam’s home, his killer saw evidence of the love and peace Sam so often exuded, and that in time, it tugged on his soul.
What’s certain is that Sam Traut’s death was senseless and wrong. God did not smile as Ashley Hunter allegedly turned on the innocent, young man responding to his request for water. Evil, in part through the likely influence of meth, had taken hold.
But we can still find something good here that is of God, including the spirit of a beautiful, young soul shining out to us, speaking peace and service to others, even at the cost of death.
Sam, I hope we will meet someday in heaven. You’ve inspired me all the more to seek the pearly gates. Thank you for your witness, dear brother. Neither your life nor death was in vain.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on July 4, 2015.]