It Is Well With My Soul

by | Jun 1, 1999 | Omniscient, Surrender

In 1984, every parent’s worst nightmare came true for my husband and me; our youngest daughter, Jonelle, was abducted from our home and has never been found.

The nightmare began on December 20. I intended to surprise my ailing parents, who lived in California and whom I hadn’t seen for years, with a holiday visit. I left on the twentieth and was to return on the twenty-sixth. My trip was my Christmas present to my parents. But, Jonelle, twelve years old and still attached to family traditions, had objected at first to my plan. “What about celebrating Christmas on the twenty-fifth?” She protested.

“We only have to wait one extra day,” I told her, “then we’ll celebrate Christmas as a family on the twenty-sixth.” Reluctantly, she agreed.

We spent that evening 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 regular, hectic pace for Jim and the girls: Jennifer dashed off to her varsity basketball game while Jim took Jonelle to McDonald’s for a quick bite to eat before dropping her off at school. Her choir was performing a Christmas concert at a local bank. Jim remembers waiting as Jonelle boarded the school bus. Then he left to watch Jennifer’s game.

When he came home later that evening at around 9:30, he expected Jonelle to be home. “Hi, Jonelle!” He called out. When there was no response, he looked around for a note, thinking perhaps she had gone to a friend’s instead.

Downstairs, the TV was on, as was the quartz heater and Jonelle’s nylon stockings were strewn about. She had been there. Beginning to worry, Jim called our pastor and dear friend, James Christy, and asked him what he should do. Pastor Christy advised Jim to call the police, then check with Jonelle’s friends, which he did. Jim learned that Jonelle had indeed been dropped off after choir by her best friend’s dad at 8:20 that evening.

Whenever we travel, we have a 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 that 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.”) Something was 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 and praying.

The next day I made arrangements to fly home, hoping that before night came it would be fixed-Jonelle would

be found, I could stay in California, the nightmare would end, 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 and the time my husband came home a little over an hour later, someone had entered our home.

Nothing in the daily routine of life prepares you for something like this. Yet somehow, I was prepared. Maybe it has something to do with simply believing that God is sovereign. It’s like that hymn, “It Is Well with My Soul.” The writer of that song lost his children and his wife in a tragedy 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, certain that at any minute she would walk through the door.

We tried everything in our efforts to locate her. Bloodhounds sniffed the property while helicopters scoured the surrounding area. Jonelle’s picture was plas­tered everywhere. Friends formed a Rescue Jonelle com­mittee. We networked with truckers. A video of Jonelle singing with her school choir that night was aired by Peter Jennings. We even went on Geraldo to tell our story. You’ll do anything-anything-to find your child. And, of course, we prayed. Thousands of people locally, nation­ally, even internationally, prayed for Jonelle. Certainly, with all this prayer, God wouldn’t leave us hanging.

But I discovered that God’s ways aren’t always our ways. Six months after Jonelle disappeared, I was driving to work. I was praying as I drove, and my prayer that day

concluded with these words: “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, I seemed to hear God say, “Gloria, will you ever give me the honor and glory if you never learn what happened to Jonelle?”

This wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I wanted to know what happened to Jonelle. I needed to know! Surely God could show us something. Was this too much to ask? For the first time since my daughter disappeared, it dawned on me that I might never know what happened. I sat in my car at the signal and wept.

I didn’t realize it at the time, and to be honest, it took years before I really understood it, but this was, in fact, God’s way of answering our prayers. It’s so easy to think, Why isn’t God answering? Why won’t he at least give us some answers? But I began to see that it doesn’t matter whether God is going to answer prayers the way I think he should answer. What matters is that God will give me the strength to endure any ordeal without being completely destroyed by it. And when the senselessness of my loss was too much to bear, I found comfort in the scripture: “The Lord is . . . My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge.” (Psalm 18:2)

To this day, there’s no answer to the mystery about Jonelle’s disappearance. But I’ve stopped asking God to tell me what happened to her. 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? Maybe not knowing is better….

On December 20, 1994, we had a memorial service for Jonelle. 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. She’s yours.” The next day, it felt as if a huge burden was 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 finally let go.

Yes, sometimes I wish I knew what happened to Jonelle. But I’ve finally surrendered myself to the fact that we may never know. The day will come when everything will be explained. But by then, Jonelle will be welcoming us to heaven, showing us around, and telling us where to go and what to do. That’s the way she is. She loves to tell you what to do….

Gloria Matthews As told to Elaine Minamide

From Chicken Soup for the Christian Family Soul. Deerfield, Florida: Health Communications, Inc, 2000, p. 314-318.


It Is Well With My Soul