More than 20 years ago, every parent's worst nightmare came true for my husband, Jim, and me: Our youngest daughter, Jonelle, was abducted from our Greeley, Colorado, home and has never been found.
Our nightmare began on December 20, 1984. I planned to surprise my ailing parents, who lived in California, with a holiday visit—my Christmas present to them. But Jonelle, 12, was still attached to family traditions and objected to my plan.
"What about celebrating Christmas on the 25th?" she protested.
"We only have to wait one extra day," I told her, "then we'll celebrate Christmas as a family on the 26th."
Reluctantly, Jonelle agreed.
We spent that afternoon together—Jim and I, our two daughters, Jennifer and Jonelle—drinking hot cider while waiting for my ride to the airport. After I left at about 5:45 p.m., life resumed its normally hectic pace for Jim and the girls: Jennifer dashed off to her varsity basketball game while Jim took Jonelle to McDonalds for a quick bite to eat before he dropped her off at school for choir. The choir was performing a Christmas concert at a local bank, so Jim waited until Jonelle boarded the school bus before leaving to watch Jennifer's game. He assumed she'd get a ride home from her best friend Deanne's father, Russell Ross.
When Jim arrived home after the game that night, it was obvious Jonelle had been there after the concert: Our TV was on, and Jonelle's nylons were strewn about. But there was no sign of Jonelle. Looking for a note from her that might tell him where she went, Jim discovered a telephone message Jonelle had scribbled from someone who'd called for him around 8:30 p.m. But she was nowhere to be found.
When Jennifer, our elder daughter, arrived home at 10, Jim asked her, "Did Jonelle say she was going somewhere after choir tonight?" Jennifer didn't think so. Finally beginning to worry, Jim checked with Jonelle's friends, confirming that Jonelle had indeed been dropped off after choir by her best friend's dad at 8:20 that evening. He called the police.
Whenever we travel, our family has the habit of calling and letting each other know we're okay. A little after midnight that night, after arriving in California, I called to let Jim know my plane had arrived safely. "Gloria," Jim began, "I don't know how to tell you this, but Jonelle isn't home. She's nowhere to be found."
It was immediate—the cold, hard knot in the pit of my stomach. It didn't occur to me to dismiss her absence matter-of-factly (She's probably at a movie or something. Nothing to be alarmed over). No—something was wrong, terribly wrong, and I knew it instantly. After I hung up, I dropped to my knees and prayed. Later I tried to sleep, but sleep wouldn't come. I spent the whole night crying, praying, then crying some more.
The next day I told my parents I had to fly home, hoping that before night came Jonelle would be found, I would be able to stay in California, the nightmare would end, and everything would be fine.
But everything was not fine. I arrived home to unmistakable evidence: On the night of December 20, 1984, between the time Jonelle had been dropped off from choir at 8:20 p. m. and the time Jim came home an hour later, there were unmistakable signs that an intruder entered our home and abducted Jonelle.
Nothing in the daily routine of life prepares you for something like this. Yet somehow, God did prepare me. You go through life doing the normal things: raising your children, teaching them about God, building a foundation of who he is. Then, if tragedy occurs, your faith doesn't waiver because you know God—this almighty, all-knowing God—is sovereign. It's like that hymn, "It Is Well with My Soul." The writer of that song lost all four daughters in a disaster at sea, yet he had peace with God. And he could still say, after all his losses, It is well with my soul.
People have asked me, "How could you live day to day with a child missing?" All I can say is we clung to hope. I left lights on at night. I set a place for Jonelle at the table on Christmas Eve so she wouldn't feel left out if she returned unexpectedly. Even as weeks turned into months, we truly believed Jonelle would be found. I was sure that at any minute she would walk through the door. I had no doubts. We even joked about it, saying, "Jonelle is such a loud person, whoever took her probably wanted to kick her out of the car, saying, 'I'm sick of this child!'"
We did everything to locate her. Despite the fact the police usually wait 24 hours before acting on a missing person report, the Greeley force took Jim's call seriously and acted immediately. The night of the abduction footprints were noticed by the windows of our house. Bloodhounds sniffed our property while helicopters scoured the surrounding area. Police thoroughly searched our home and interrogated both Jim and Russell Ross, the last known people who had seen her, for several hours, clearing them both. Jonelle's picture was plastered everywhere. Friends formed a "Rescue Jonelle" committee. We networked with the truckers. A video of Jonelle singing with her school choir that night was aired by ABC's Peter Jennings. Believe it or not, we went on Geraldo to tell our story. You'll do anything—anything—to find your child.
And we prayed. Thousands of people locally, nationally, even internationally, prayed for Jonelle. Certainly, with all this prayer, God wouldn't leave us hanging.
But God's ways aren't always our ways, and he had something else in mind. Six months after Jonelle disappeared, I was driving to work and praying in the car. Whenever I prayed for Jonelle, at the end of my prayer I'd always say, "Lord, you know we'll give you the honor and glory through all this. Just give us some answers." That day, sitting at a signal light, I seemed to hear God say, Gloria, will you give me the honor and glory even if you never learn what happened to Jonelle?
And it hit me. I sat there in the car at that signal and broke down. Simply sobbed. This wasn't what I wanted to hear. I needed to know! I've been a Christian for years, served him faithfully. But I still wanted to know what happened to Jonelle. Was this too much to ask?
I didn't realize it at the time, and to be honest, it took years before I really understood it, but God was answering our prayers. In 1990, an entry I read from a devotional by Oswald Chambers gave me a different perspective. In it Chambers wrote, "We are not here to prove God answers prayer; we are here to be living monuments of God's grace."
It's so easy to think, Why isn't God answering our prayers? Why won't he at least give us some answers? But after reading those words, I experienced such relief from wanting to know what happened to Jonelle. I began to see that it doesn't matter whether God is going to answer prayer the way I think he should answer. What matters is that we are to be living monuments of his grace. Whatever we're going through, God will give us the grace and strength to endure any ordeal without being completely devastated by it. And when the senselessness of my loss is too much to bear, I find comfort in the Scriptures: "The Lord … my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge" (Psalm 18:2), and "the name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe" (Proverbs 18:10).
To this day there's no answer to the mystery about Jonelle's disappearance. While no longer considered active, the investigation is still pending. And because her case is open, we're unable to divulge specifics on any evidence noted by detectives regarding Jonelle's abduction.
I've stopped asking God to tell me what happened to her. Maybe not knowing is better. Maybe he has a reason for not giving me the answers I want. What if what happened to Jonelle is worse than what I can imagine?
On December 20, 1994, we had a memorial service for Jonelle. For Jim and me, it was our way not only of saying good-bye to our daughter, but of also saying to God, "We're letting her go now, and leaving everything up to you." The next day, I felt as though a huge burden had lifted from us. I knew I could do nothing else for Jonelle. As a mother, you never really want to let go of that sense that there's more you could have done. But that night, I let everything go and said, It's all yours, Lord. Really.
Jonelle accepted Christ as a young child and really loved the Lord. So we know that if she is dead, she's in heaven, spending eternity with Jesus. I've finally surrendered to the fact that we may never know what happened to her. But the day will come when it will be our turn to go to heaven and everything will be explained. By then, Jonelle will be welcoming us and showing us around—just because that's the way she is.
Elaine Minamide is a freelance writer who lives with her family in California.
1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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