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.
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 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.”