As soon as I heard about Joy’s death back in January, I immediately knew her life and death would have an immense impact on Biola’s campus as well as this year’s Missions Conference. I am one of the Directors this year, and when I found out about Joy, I called my Co-Director, Amber White, and we knew God was moving in some powerful ways. We were anxious and not sure how we would incorporate honoring Joy’s life into conference in a gracious and respectful way. Well as we started hearing stories from the team members (we are good friends with several of them), one particular story really stood out to me. Her team members kept talking about how the night before she died, Joy talked a lot about how she finally experienced true freedom in Christ: she knew that who God made her to be was good enough and beautiful enough and that she was loved by her heavenly Father. Her teammates even showed us a picture of her painting a canvas with the Indian orphans that said “Free” on it. This freedom Joy got to experience the night before she died is such a beautiful thing, and Amber and I wanted to honor that.
Coincidently enough, the topic of the Wednesday night session for conference was title “Walking in Freedom because of Who the Great I AM Is.” We could have never planned that what Joy experienced her last night, would be what God had planned for every student at Biola to experience that night at conference as well. Amber and I still talk about how the Holy Spirit was so present in planning the theme and the session flow, as we could have never planned for Joy’s death to line up so well with the conference theme. We have had the theme and what each session would be about planned since last fall.
Back in September and October, we wondered so many times, “God, is this what you want the students to hear?” Of course, we didn’t know that over Interterm one of our own would die and then her life have such an impact on this campus.
So in the weeks leading up to Conference, we had our Interactions Department paint a replica of Joy’s painting on two large 4’X8’s. We knew that a lot of students would recognize the painting and deeply appreciate it, but we also knew most students would not know what the painting was from, but it is still a beautiful painting that when looking at it, breathes freedom into your heart and gives you a hope that only comes from Jesus. Our hope was that we could honor Joy’s life by focusing on this freedom that she found. We thought this would be enough to remind students of her, but definitely did not want to do anything else that would be overbearing and not honoring, as the conference is about the Great I AM and being compelled by the I AM to live missionally.
We put the painting with lights around it so it would glow at night, along with a wooden cross in-between the gym and Crowell during conference. It was up the whole conference, but we specifically used it Wednesday night. Amber and I spoke at the beginning of the session telling students that tonight was about freedom. We briefly mentioned that Joy experienced true freedom the night she died because she understood who the Great I AM is and that the freedom she found is what God intends for each of the students here at Biola. Our speaker, Bianca Olthoff, spoke about what it looks like to walk in freedom. We cannot bring others to freedom or even live missionally if we ourselves are not free first. Her talk was amazing.
Anyway, at the end of her message, we had a time of response for students. We asked them, “What is holding you back from being free?” We had stations set up around the gym that night with pieces of white paper and pens, so students could write down what was still holding them back: holding them back from loving Jesus, holding them back from true freedom, holding them back from being all that God made them to be, etc. Amber and I thought that maybe 30-45 people would come down and write something, but what happened that night we could have never planned for hundreds and hundreds of students came and wrote stuff down (our staff was running around trying to get more paper and pass it out to everyone who wanted it). Also we had student-led prayer teams to pray for people if they needed it, and on this night during the response time, the lines were out of the Gym- OUT OF THE GYM!! It was amazing and insane to see so many people at conference wanting to be freed from so many things, and I believe Joy’s life and death gave a lot of those people the courage to do that. Obviously the Holy Spirit was moving and knew this would happen for a long time, but wow He has used Joy’s freedom to bring freedom to so many students here at Biola.
Usually the Wednesday night of conference is more subdued and Thursday night is the night session where students respond more, but this year Wednesday night was special. Wednesday night was something I could have never expected in my best dreams for conference. God has taken the sadness and hurt from Joy’s death, and has instead wiped our tears and replaced our sadness with freedom and hope. Wednesday night after the students finished writing down what was holding them back, they all went outside to the cross and nailed their papers to the cross. After that night and after the extended worship was over, you couldn’t even see any of the wood of the 7-foot cross anymore. Biola students want to be free- they recognize now that so many things hold them back and this was the most powerful moment at conference for me and my staff.
The cross and painting were up for all of conference, and so many people took amazing pictures by it. This space allowed students to take time to reflect on everything that has happened this semester, and to contemplate what the future could look like, especially without chains holding them back anymore.
I would want Mr. and Mrs. Negash to know that their daughter’s life and death not only had a huge impact on those whom she knew, but also to this whole campus and so many around the world. We hosted over 75 Missions Organizations from around the globe and they all heard Joy’s story and felt the freedom on campus. Each of the sessions were live-streamed, and over 45 countries watched and heard as well. God is using his daughter Joy to bring freedom to thousands of people around the world, and I was so honored to be a part of it. This year’s conference didn’t just reach the students who want to do overseas mission work. No, I believe every student on campus was affected because we called every person into this freedom and the hope that God gives each of us for everyday.