Sunday, March 18, 1973, was a beautiful day. My husband, Larry, had been called in to work, so I was alone with the kids that afternoon. Little Larry, our son, wanted to join his sisters on a hike up the hill behind our home in California’s Santa Cruz foothills.
“No,” I said. “A nap first!” Larry Jr. had been having headaches off and on. Although he had been sick with spinal meningitis three months before, the doctor was sure that nothing was wrong now. Still, I was protective. I felt a constant fear and had a knot in my stomach all the time.
But I finally gave in when Larry said, “Mom, you never let me have any fun!”
Those were the last words I heard my little son say.
About 20 minutes later, my daughter Catherine came running down the hill yelling, “Mommy, Larry is on the ground, and we can’t move him!” We called for an ambulance but were unable to save him. He was only 6 years old when God took him home to heaven. Larry’s cause of death was unknown, but we now believe that it was a recurrence of meningitis.
After that I felt myself sink into the deepest black hole of my life. I withdrew from the world. My husband threw himself into long hours of work. I never blamed God, but my soul cried out, “Why? Why? Why?” Had I been so bad that God wanted to punish me in such a cruel way? I thought about suicide and started planning my own death.
I went to my priest with a Bible and asked him to prove to me that there was a heaven. He became angry, took the Bible, slammed it shut and told me to go home. He told me that I was no longer a mother to my child–he was dead.
Suicide began to look better.
Then one evening, while Larry was working late, I started surfing the TV channels. A man was preaching about God’s love and forgiveness. The more I listened, the more I knew this message was for me! I needed to forgive others. I had so much bitterness in me toward those who didn’t seem to care about my pain. Then the man, Billy Graham, invited people to accept Christ.
I fell to my knees there in my living room and repeated the words of Mr. Graham’s prayer. On my knees, with tears flowing down my face, I asked for forgiveness. I gave my life to Jesus that night in front of the television and felt the Holy Spirit tell me that everything was OK.
Some years went by, and in September 1983 a Billy Graham Crusade came to Sacramento, Calif. I was learning the Christian walk, but it was hard. Larry wanted no part of church. I traveled 60 miles to be a counselor and sing in the Crusade choir.
I was so excited, but Larry wouldn’t go to the Crusade with me. The first two evenings I went with someone else, and I prayed and prayed for my husband. On the third evening Larry agreed to drive me to the stadium. I asked him to give the Crusade a chance. He reluctantly took a seat in the bleachers, and I sat with the choir.
Later, as Mr. Graham finished his message, I prayed so hard that Larry’s heart would be touched. Mr. Graham asked us to pray with all our hearts–I can still see him standing, head bowed, eyes closed and praying. It was quiet. Then I heard a sound like thundering hoof beats. So many people were coming forward.
“Oh, Lord,” I cried, “let Larry be one of them.”
As the meeting ended, there was a tap on my shoulder. I turned, and a woman asked, “Are you Joann?”
When I said yes, she replied, “Your husband, Larry, came forward tonight and gave his heart to Jesus. He wanted you to know.”
“Where is he?” I asked.
“Look,” she said, pointing to the platform, “He’s helping to clear the stage.”
Many years have passed since that day, but today Larry and I are both serving Jesus. We still suffered losses; my father and brother died of cancer, and Larry’s cousin was murdered. But with every loss we grew and sensed the Holy Spirit’s peace.
I have worked in the hospital chaplaincy ministry for the past five years. Larry assists me and volunteers at the hospital and in other ministry.
Because I had no help in my time of crisis, I wanted to be a part of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s Rapid Response Team, which responds at scenes of major disasters. This past August Larry and I attended the “His Presence in Crisis” evangelism Conference at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove to receive more crisis training.
I like to comfort people, to hold them and pray for them. When you’re in a disaster area, the survivors need to feel the love of Jesus more than they need to hear you preaching. I can’t take away people’s hurt, but I can help them travel their own journey from sorrow to joy.