Stricken by cancer, defined by faith

| February 25, 2015 | 11 Comments
As Joe Hall of St. Joseph in West St. Paul battles a rare form of abdominal cancer, he is using this time to continue helping out with youth ministry and share his faith testimony. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

As Joe Hall of St. Joseph in West St. Paul battles a rare form of abdominal cancer, he is using this time to continue helping out with youth ministry and share his faith testimony. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Peter DeMarais parked in front of the two-story house on Manomin Avenue in St. Paul. He bypassed the front gate and swung around to the back, gave a quick knock on the door, then ducked in before anyone answered.

In the hallway, he met the owners of the home, Nick and Natalie Hall, members of St. Joseph in West St. Paul. After a quick greeting, he made his way to the simple living room and plopped himself onto a chair.

He was there to see his boyhood pal, Joe Hall. The two twenty-somethings grew up just across the street from each other, and were nearly inseparable throughout their childhood, along with a third friend, John Berchem, whose home was next to the DeMarais family. John’s father, Mark Berchem, is founder and director of National Evangelization Teams (NET) Ministries, a national retreat-based-outreach for teens and young adults based in West St. Paul. Joe served as a NET missionary six years ago and was appointed team leader, one of the youngest leaders the organization had ever selected.

Peter made himself comfortable and waited for his friend, a young man dying of cancer.

Joe came back down the stairs and dropped his frail body onto a brown couch equipped with a pair of pillows. The two longtime friends cranked their hands together in a grip of friendship and brotherhood.

Each conversation could be their last.

After three years of fighting the disease, Hall’s body finally is giving way. He has dropped 20-plus pounds off his already ravaged body since Christmas, and he now weighs less than 100 pounds. His sunken, gray face gives away his current condition.

That’s why Peter spends so much of his time at the Hall home. He goes there at least twice a week. One of those meetings is business related — talking about the youth group that Hall led for four years before he became too sick to continue. The other get-togethers are strictly friendship related. Peter wants to be with Joe as much as possible before cancer ends his life on earth.

Stunning news

It began in the spring of 2011, when Joe, the oldest of five children, was celebrating his graduation from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

Like many of his friends, he had a plan for life after college. He had just signed a lease to live with three other guys whom he got to know while serving as a missionary for St. Paul’s Outreach, a campus-based ministry to college students with ties to NET. He was working in an internship that he hoped would be a springboard into the business world, where he planned to do consulting work.

On top of that, he was enjoying the youth ministry work he was doing for Community of Christ the Redeemer, or CCR, a local, lay Catholic charismatic community. He had a girlfriend, and knew he wanted to be a husband and father someday. He wondered if she would be the one.

Joe would never get to answer that question. In his final semester of college, he began to experience stomach pain. Sometimes, it was severe. Tests revealed nothing conclusive.

Thinking it might be colitis or irritable bowel syndrome, he made an appointment for a scan of his abdomen.

That appointment took place two days after his graduation, May 23. It was the day his life changed forever.

He drove himself to the hospital and went through the procedure alone. He was sitting by himself in a room after the exam when a phone rang. He picked it up, and heard the news — two large tumors were growing in his abdomen, one the size of a soccer ball, the other the size of a softball. He had a rare form of abdominal cancer that almost always kills its victims when it’s diagnosed this late. It was stage four.

His doctor wasn’t sure it was cancer, so she sent him to Mayo Clinic in Rochester for a biopsy. Just a day later, his suspicions were confirmed, and doctors formulated a treatment plan, one that has included chemotherapy, radiation and surgeries to remove parts of the tumors.

Joe Hall, right, poses for a picture in December, 2012, with other members of his family: his mother, Natalie, left, Sharon, Loretta, Nick (his father), Nicholas and David. Photo by Wendy Zins

Joe Hall, right, poses for a picture in December, 2012, with other members of his family: his mother, Natalie, left, Sharon, Loretta, Nick (his father), Nicholas and David. Photo by Wendy Zins

Growing faith

Joe has outlived doctors’ initial timeline of six months, and those closest to him know why.

God is using this young man to inspire a lot of people, they believe, and to show them the faith that has been there throughout his life. Friends and family say his faith seems to grow stronger as his body grows weaker.

A room full of people who have worked closely with Joe — and been a part of his life since he was born — gathered recently to share what they see in this remarkable young leader, a man whom one described as wise beyond his years.

“It’s easy to say, ‘I’ll give my life to the Lord’” when things are going well, said Mark Berchem, who has watched thousands of young people serve as team members and leaders.

“But, when the Lord throws you a curveball, that’s when you have a choice to make.

“Joe made a fundamental decision at one point in his life, where he said, ‘I’m going to follow the Lord,’ and he meant it,” Berchem added. “Even though it’s not the path that Joe would have picked out, it’s the path that God has for him, and so he’s walking it the best he can. I think that’s what people find so inspiring.”

Even now, with the end of his life seemingly drawing near, he is not pulling back from earthly tasks that have been his passion. Abe Gross, who also grew up knowing Joe, has taken over Joe’s youth group leadership position, along with Lizzie Holmes. But Joe has yet to pull out of youth ministry.

“He still meets with us every week to discuss youth group and talk about the kids and their issues,” Holmes said. “Joe is being an example of how to suffer. He’s been the leader for us. How do you suffer well? How do you hope in the Lord when all else is lost?”

Only Joe seems able to answer that question, as others around him wonder how God could allow someone with so much potential to be tapped for a young death.

And, answer it he does, flashing the same smile during an intense conversation about death that he has to family and friends for years. He makes self-effacing remarks about his changed appearance, but nothing — not even cancer — can take that grin away. Nor does it diminish his firm belief that this is all God’s plan.

Of course, Joe has moments of anguish. He admits that he has often felt lonely and isolated.

But, ultimately, God’s plan is good.

“The Lord’s plan is right, the Lord’s plan is perfect,” he said. “That it doesn’t match up with what we think the plan should be doesn’t somehow mean it’s wrong or that he’s made a mistake. He’s God and we’re not.”

Sometimes, those feelings surface at 2 a.m. when he can’t sleep.

Instead of waking his family, he pulls out his phone and pours out a text message to the Lord.

“I would type it on my phone and be like, ‘Lord, I don’t understand. Lord, this is hard,’” he said.

But, no matter how hard or painful it gets, even on his worst days, the ending to those text messages is always the same: A surrender to a God who loves him and may take him to himself very soon.

“Lord, you are God,” he said, repeating the words of a recent text to the Lord. “You are right and I trust in you and I trust in your plan. This is hard for me right now. I need you to know that I’m having a hard time. But, you’re still God, and I still love you, I still follow you. You’re still first and you’re still my everything.”

Joe’s Caring Bridge

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Category: Featured, The Last Word

  • Sarah

    we love you, Joe!

  • Uncle Bert

    Joe,
    May God help you through your suffering. You are never alone, even at 2AM, God is with you!

  • mominvermont

    May you and your family continue to feel the presence of the Lord …

  • Colleen

    This is an incredible story. Joe, you are a true soldier for Christ. Prayers.

  • rocio vallee

    Hi Joe,
    I love you sooooooooooooooooooooo much in Christ. May the peace of Jesus Christ will be with you always. May his love and his mercy endure forever. I watched your videos. And I felt that what you expressed in them have been revealed to you by grace, so in you, we may see the face of Jesus. Thank you for sharing. I experienced Jesus in you.

  • Brandi Holmes

    Joe, I do not know you, I am not catholic. I happened upon your story after scanning a facebook page after watching a viral video. It was meant to be. Your faith has touched me. Your love and faith in the Lord, even in the midst of dealing with all of your natural human emotions…it’s humbling. You’re beautiful, and allowing God to use you like this at a time when you could be so resentful and fearful….it’s going to change the world. I am praying for you, all the was from Dallas TX.

  • Aimee

    Joe–I don’t know you, but just came across your story via a viral video of the Hoffman family. I sit here reading your story with tears in my eyes, hope in my heart, but pride in the faith you’ve shown in our Lord Jesus Christ. I prayed for healing before I even read your story, but as I read through, I prayed for peace, strength and God’s will. You inspire us through your life and illness. May God bless you and hold you tight, that even in your suffering, know that He is always with you.

  • Barbara

    Prayers for peace of heart ,mind ,body and soul .Hold tight for God is good.

  • Lauren

    Praying for you and your family Joe. The lives that you have inspired and brought Christ to are countless and will continue to grow each and every day.

    Thank you for always staying so faithful to the Lord, He is truly always by your side.

  • Yoli

    It was hard to read this heartbreaking story through all the tears flowing down my face. Beautiful comments from so many people. Joe is right. God’s plan is always right….always perfect. With God by our side, we take each day as it comes. Prayers for you and your loved ones. You are an inspiration to all of us.

  • Jackie

    Rest in peace Joe, I am moved by your life and your death and will be praying for you and your family.