We never know when we encounter people in our daily lives the circumstances they are facing in theirs. In the early 1990s, life was busy and full for Charles and Joanna Poor and their family. She was active in ministry at Houston’s First, where she had been a member since age 17. Charles, a psychologist, started the Counseling Center at Houston’s First in 1983, attending to hurts of countless individuals and couples. Their son Philip was away at medical school, and their daughter Julianna was a student at Oklahoma Baptist University. But in the fall of ‘90, Julianna was diagnosed with aggressive lung cancer. After a courageous battle, she succumbed to it the following spring. Julianna was only 21.
“I couldn’t fall apart,” said Joanna. “After Charles had worked all day helping other people with their problems, it wouldn’t have been fair to him to come home to a crying wife.”
On the recommendation of a friend, Joanna began journaling on her computer to sort out her feelings. And though she had a host of loving friends who earnestly prayed for her, she admits having a child die is a loss that no one can truly understand unless they, too, have suffered in the same way.
“After the death, many are afraid to speak the child’s name for fear of opening the wound all over again,” said Joanna. “But it was important to me to hear Julianna’s name. I had a fear of her being forgotten.”
In 2009, the Lord spoke to Joanna. “He put on my heart to do something for women whose child has died,” she said.
After trading calls with Houston’s First Women’s Ministry Director Carolyn O’Neal, the two finally connected and, coincidentally (or not), church leaders had just discussed the idea of starting such a ministry at the church. Not long after, Pastor Gregg contacted Joanna about two women whose adult sons had been killed. She met with one of them whose 20-something son had been fatally injured in a motorcycle accident. She left a phone message for the second mother, Rosa Waters, but even after several attempts at reaching her, she never returned the call.
Joanna’s search for a suitable book to use when meeting with mothers ended with Houston’s First Minister of Counseling Services Adam Mason’s recommendation of Gone, but not Lost: Grieving the Death of a Child, by David Wiersbe. It became the course textbook Joanna used for organizing Sisters in Support (SIS). Each class meets in 12-week sessions, and women are encouraged to attend as many sessions as they wish.
The first Sisters in Support meeting brought nine women together in a First Baptist Academy conference room in the fall of 2010. “We had a great book and we were learning as we went,” said Joanna. “It turned out to be a very close, successful group.”
Before the first SIS meeting, Joanna had a ‘God appointment’ at a Houston’s First women’s event. Joanna nodded a greeting to a woman she passed in the hallway, and in minutes, Carolyn walked over to Joanna’s table with the same woman. She introduced her as Rosa Waters, the mother Joanna had been trying to contact about SIS for months. “In five minutes around that table, Rosa and I became instant friends,” said Joanna. “Those months ago that I had tried to contact her she had not been ready to receive my message about a group.”
Rosa and Rocky Waters’ only child, Michael, a 24 year-old Arkansas police officer, was killed in the line of duty in 2003. He had only been married 10 months.
“My world collapsed,” said Rosa. “I couldn’t imagine there was anyone I knew who understood what I was feeling.”
Rosa joined SIS after her impromptu meeting with Joanna, and after the first 12- week session ended she returned to participate in the third session. Pastor Gregg invited SIS to meet in the pastor’s suite conference room as their new home beginning with the fourth session, just about the time Rosa began to co-lead the group with Joanna. By session five, Rosa was rotating as teacher with Joanna.
“The tapestry of the group is so interesting from one 12-week session to the next,” said Joanna. “Each group is different depending on the women who attend.” Friendships are birthed in each group; and not only during the sessions, but also at retreats, parties and other events SIS members do together throughout the year.
“We are always hoping a sister will find another sister to identify with,” said Joanna. “The death of a child can be isolating in that you can’t really talk about it with your regular friends.”
Some women find out about SIS through word of mouth and others have joined the church as a result of their association with the group. A sense of camaraderie when settling in to SIS is part of the beauty of the gathering. “There is power in knowing you aren’t alone,” said Rosa. “Everyone to some degree feels the same. We’re in a club we never wanted to join.”
Rosa reminisced about Michael as a happy kid who seemed to have an inborn sense of service. Rosa’s husband Rocky was her support after Michael’s death, until Rocky died five years later. “As difficult as those days were, my faith never waivered,” said Rosa. “I felt the Lord holding me. I never imagined there could be joy after our child’s death. It’s not how I dreamed, but good things have come out of this life.”
As Pastor Gregg has taught, ministry can come from misery, and Joanna and Charles Poor have witnessed the unique ways the Lord brings it to pass. Inexplicably, with deep pain have come times of joy. In 1999, Houston’s First honored Julianna by renaming the Counseling Center the Julianna Poor Memorial Counseling Center. It’s an honor, they say, that humbles them, but makes them happy that she will be remembered well beyond her short 21 years of life.
Joanna marvels at the strength their daughter showed during her brief illness. “Truthfully, Juli taught me how to die,” said Joanna. “She never questioned God, not one time, even when the treatments failed. Twelve hours before she died she was making us laugh. It has taken time, but we’ve learned to laugh again.”
There are many avenues of support for women at Houston’s First. Meet new friends and hear stories of hope at the upcoming Unchanging Women’s Retreat on Oct 7 & 8.