“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
This precious passage from 2 Corinthians 1:4 speaks boldly to those who serve without payment, without recompense, without the emoluments that would normally attach to any profession, vocation or career. It speaks to Joyce Harris. Like hundreds before her, Joyce has been called to volunteer at Life Challenge. Volunteers are the unsung and unpaid heroes who would give freely to the afflicted what they themselves received freely from a gracious God: comfort, caring, love.
Joyce knows well the comfort that only God can give. She comes from a family that had a Jewish father and a Baptist mother. “Mom did not attend church except on Easter Sunday,” she says, and her dad did not insist on raising his children Jewish. Even so, Jesus Christ was never mentioned in the home.
On Sundays her mother would drop Joyce and her two sisters at the door of the Baptist church. Joyce was the middle girl, one sister a year older and one a year younger. “I remember once in church, adult church, not Sunday school, an invitation was given and I responded by walking forward.” But nothing happened, she says. She didn’t follow through and no one followed up..“ I just knew even as young girl that I needed God.”
Her mother committed suicide in 1957. It was a shocking, crushing blow to a young girl drifting uneasily into womanhood. She was 12 years old.
Joyce had a keepsake her Mom had given her. It was a special treasure, a Bible with Joyce’s name engraved on it. She placed a red rose from her mother’s casket in it. It marked the one verse she knew by heart, John 3:16.
After her mother’s death she remembers a constant aching, a terrible longing for her mother’s face, her voice, her comfort. “All I wanted was to be a good girl so that, when I died, I could go to heaven and see my mother again.”
Like so many with a vague, second-hand notion of the faith, she thought that if she could only be good enough, pleasing enough, she could someday be in heaven with the mother she missed so much. Her heart was a big, open wound but, so far as she knew, it did not qualify her for the comfort she sought.
“For years I would wake up in the morning and promise myself that I would do everything right that day. I was determined to be good.” But by the time she crawled into her bed, she knew that once again she had failed and she would cry herself to sleep. “Those years were very hard on my sisters too, but we were unaware of each other’s struggles. We never talked about my mom. It was taboo.
“She and her sisters did not get along with her father. It was a struggle. He expected a lot from his daughters. “He wanted us to look the best, to do the best, and to be the best.” Joyce thought she embarrassed him. She wore glasses, needed braces, and worse yet, she had acne that he found unacceptable. “In short,” she says painfully, “I was the kind of kid that only a mother could love. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a mother.”
The one good thing that Joyce’s father bestowed upon his daughters was a firm belief that they could support themselves, if necessary. College was never an option. It was mandatory. Joyce went away to school and stayed away, even on holidays. It wasn’t unusual for her to go home with her roommate. She remembers a kind of breaking point when her father called to say “Joyce, just don’t disappoint me.” She dropped out of school and went underground for a year. When she finally re-surfaced it was to tell her father that she was getting married.
“I was 20 years old, married to a man who was raised Catholic, but it wasn’t long before the old pains returned.” She started attending mass with her husband. It didn’t help. She felt worse than ever. She knew she would never measure up.
“I couldn’t get rid of the gnawing feeling that God was somewhere but I didn’t know how to reach Him.” Joyce became increasingly obsessed with her own death.
In 1977, when her children were 8 and 9 years old, she couldn’t take the pain any longer. While her husband took the boys to the store, she remembers sitting at her kitchen table and getting enraged at God.
She said to him, “God if you can’t send me to a place where I can learn to read my Bible, I can’t talk to you anymore.” Having put God on notice she reached for the phone book in the cupboard. She opened it to “churches.” She saw a large box and the words “Bible School.” She dialed the number. The voice at the other end said, “Ward Presbyterian Church.” It was Pastor Moore, the pastor of evangelism. Joyce heard herself say, “I have a Jewish father and a Baptist mother, is there any hope for me?”
“Yes,” came the reply, there is.
“We went to church on Sun, March 27, 1977 and I heard preaching on the Book of Romans. My only regret was that I didn’t have paper and pencil with me.” She remembers being surprised because she saw whole families studying, learning, and praying together in church, not just women and children. She could hardly believe her eyes, “everywhere I looked people were carrying Bibles.”
Several weeks later pastor Moore came to visit. He talked to Joyce about Jesus, about how we all have sinned, about our hope, about our Savior. Before leaving, he quoted John 3:16 and left a booklet explaining salvation.
Later that night while everyone was asleep, Joyce was on her knees in the living room, her red rose in her hands, her keepsake Bible by her side. The tears flowed. Her big, open heart poured out repentance and “sin-by-sin, I asked for God’s forgiveness.” She can’t remember how long she knelt and cried. She only knows that she was loved, comforted and finally clean. “I knew for certain and for the first time that I would spend eternity with God and I have never since doubted that promise.”
The struggles weren’t over, but the light had broken and there was hope. Joyce and her husband were divorced in 1981. “We always struggled with our marriage,” she says, looking off and sighing. She prayed often during that painful time, that God would heal her broken marriage. “I came to realize that God was not changing my circumstances, but he was changing me.”
After the divorce, struggling as a single parent, Joyce remembers almost exclusively reading from the Psalms. She was still given to depression, but the words of the psalmist were soothing; they reminded her that she was always in God’s loving arms. She read and re-read Psalm 139. God knew her through and through. He loved her. It was all she wanted.
Joyce met Don Harris while working at a crisis call-in center at Ward Presbyterian Church. They were married. It was a second marriage for both. In 2010, Don was taken to be with the Lord. Joyce believes that their short time together was a blessing from God. She misses Don with all her heart, but she no longer grieves as one who has no hope. She knows that in and through her mourning, she is blessed; and finally, that her present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed to her.
Joyce brings that hope of glory with her everyday to Life Challenge. She gives comfort and care to the afflicted inside these walls. Along with George Herbert, that most loved of Christian poets, she can whisper sweetly through affliction to all who will have ears to hear, “Only take this gentle rose, and therein my answer lies.” (The Rose, by George Herbert, 1633).