For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it. (Mark 8:35)
On Sunday you might notice a new name on the Cloud of Witnesses. But you probably wouldn’t have noticed her in the supermarket: a grey-haired woman, slightly fussy, filling her trolley with food. You might not have thought much of her modest but cherished collection of collectible dolls, or the cuckoo clock on the wall which squawked every fifteen minutes, or her religious devotion to A Current Affair. But last week, one of the great saints passed through to glory: my beloved Joyce.
She was born and lived most of her life within a one-mile radius of her church, although she wasn’t born into it. At fifteen, she left school and became a florist. Still a teenager, she was invited to a church youth event, became a Christian, met a tradie, married, then had three kids in quick succession. During those years, she served the church following the needs and ages of her own children, extending into many other children’s lives.
But she really took off during RevFaith, a series on active discipleship. One week, the sermon focused on how each person has gifts to share for building up the body of Christ. Joyce suddenly realized, “Even me!” – and then she wondered how. She and her husband Keith were part of a small group, and together they wrestled with how each person was called to love and serve Jesus.
Joyce had noticed many young people walking past the church on their way to an earlier incarnation of Centrelink, and it planted a seed. It was the days of high youth unemployment; lots of kids had nowhere to go and nothing to do. Something about these kids snagged her heart, so she worked with the church to open a youth drop in centre in the church hall. Soon it was bustling with 15- to 25-year-olds. As things grew, they partnered with the Community Youth Support Scheme, providing space for paid workers to come alongside the existing team and offer life skills, work experience, training and employment advice. There were joys, frustrations and excitements, including a police raid on an illegal weapons stash hidden on church property.
Joyce became close to many of the young people, and came to understand the particular pressures on their lives; she was called out by the police and the CAT team to assist at times. One particularly troubled young man lived with her and her husband on and off for many years; as someone observed, he was a source of both great joy and enormous suffering as he lurched from disaster to disaster. When asked about him, she would shake her head and say, “Oh, Brendan”, exasperated, saddened, yet also sometimes amused by the latest mess.
More than once I heard her say these words to me, too. “Oh, Alison…” she’d sigh, as I found myself in a muddle of frustration or rage. Her gentle, insightful comments cut through the guff and laid me bare in profound and helpful ways. She had the rare gift of seeing what people could become, and loving them into being.
I don’t know if she’d have called herself a feminist, but she became a passionate supporter of women in ministry. She saw right through systems which ‘allowed’ women to work but demanded they perform all the functions of home, too, and was especially critical of churches which expected female pastors to also perform the traditional duties of a minister’s wife. She sought both to challenge and alleviate the situation.
My mother was one of Joyce’s ministers. So when I was born, Joyce cared for me weekly so mum could continue to work. Years later, when I was at university and my parents still overseas, Joyce welcomed me into their home in semester breaks. I was impressed by her commitment to ironing (even undies!), but much more by her generosity of spirit and legendary meals. But when I became a pastor myself, she was horrified to learn I still cooked for church suppers: “Your role is as pastor,” she admonished. “It’s other people’s role to cook.” It’s a lesson I still have not fully learned.
At a time when few churches welcomed women into leadership, Joyce was appointed an elder. Indeed, way back in the eighties a combination of factors meant that, one week, communion was presided over by a woman pastor flanked by six female servers, including Joyce. Some in the congregation thought it wonderful; others were less thrilled until it was pointed out they had never noticed the thousands of times communion had been led entirely by men.
Joyce trusted in the transformative power of the gospel, and in the shared life: that of gathering with other disciples to devote themselves “to the apostles’ teaching and the common life, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Through creatively leveraging the common resources of the church, and taking on more than a little financial risk themselves, Joyce and her builder husband, Keith, helped congregational members move into the local area to catalyze community through proximity.
Among other projects, and with the support of the church, they sold their family home and purchased an oddly-shaped block, split the title, and built five townhouses. Four households, including theirs, then purchased a townhouse and moved in; the fifth was retained by the church to use as supported accommodation. Single mums, people with mental health issues, refugees and others were given a steady home in their midst. For decades, Joyce hosted a weekly common meal for the members of this development, with glad and generous heart.
She never waited to become perfect, healed or whole before serving others. She just rolled up her sleeves and got to work, and she kept on working and loving through great sadness. A third of the congregation died one year, including a number of people in their thirties, forties and fifties; many were her beloved friends. She also mourned the deaths of a four-year-old granddaughter, her adult son, her foster son, and her husband. Through it all, she kept welcoming troubled teenagers into her home; she kept filling her trolley with good food to share; she kept loving us into fullness of life; she kept praying for us all. Her funeral was a reflection of this: a crowded church full of people who had been cared for and fed by her. She approached everyone – grandchildren, street kids, neighbours, refugees, and me – as her beloved: and so of course she herself was very greatly loved.
Jesus says: For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it (Mark 8:35). Over and over again, I saw Joyce give her life away: her money, her food, her home, her time, her love, her comfort, her financial security, even at times her personal safety. Yet she was never diminished. Instead, as everyone at the funeral would attest, her life overflowed with abundant generosity, grace and joy. And I have described only a few of the fruits of her and her community’s revolutionary faith. Dare I say, “If every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25).
Emailed to Sanctuary 10 May 2023 © Sanctuary, 2023. Photo of Joyce with her beloved Keith courtesy of Jean Rumbold. Sanctuary is based on Peek Whurrong country. Acknowledgement of country here.
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