Joanne Hershberger: Hi Janelle. I am honored to have the opportunity of getting to know you better through this Q&A. Welcome to the Refresh blog.
Janelle Burkholder: Thank you – I’m glad to be here!
JH: Since I (and our readers) are not familiar with your story can we start at the beginning? Where were you born and raised?
JB: I was born in Lebanon, PA, and spent my childhood and early adult years there.
JH: You were the youngest of five siblings. What was life like for you growing up?
JB: Yes, I am the youngest in a family of five girls, but since I was seven years younger than my next older sister I somewhat grew up as an only child. I was blessed to have some cousins my age who I was close to and were wonderful playmates for my childhood years. My Dad did a lot of traveling for his business and he liked to take my Mom and me along as much as possible so I was privileged to see many parts of the country as a child and teenager.
JH: God gifted you a spouse. Would you like to share how you two met?
JB: Bernell and I grew up in the same area, going to the same school, so we don’t really have a “meeting” story. Since he is several years older than me we didn’t know each other well through our childhood years but after we were in the youth group together I started noticing his gifts in leadership and realizing that he was a man I would love to share my life with.
JH: God called you and your husband to a missionary opportunity in Haiti. Can you tell us about that experience? What were the greatest joys? What were some of the realities, hardships on the mission field.
JB: We served in Haiti under SLM Ministries from March, 1998 – March, 2000. Our time there was full of opportunities to learn to trust God more fully. Some of the things that challenged my faith were robberies, surviving a hurricane, having our truck window broken by a rock thrown at us and having typhoid fever while I was pregnant. We were blessed to make many wonderful friends among the native Haitians and my husband still goes back each year to teach at a seminar at one of the churches he pastored when we lived there. For me, one of the hardest parts of our time in Haiti was loneliness. I dearly loved the Native Pastor’s wife, and although we could chat as we cooked or sewed together, I never became fluent enough in the language to discuss heart-to-heart matters. I cherished times spent with our co-missionaries but since we had a three to four hour drive to headquarters we didn’t get to see them on a regular basis.
JH: When you returned from Haiti you moved to Northern PA where your husband was ordained to the ministry. How did these changes affect you personally?
JB: Because of the loneliness I struggled with in Haiti, I so desperately felt the need to go “home” and be carried by my family and friends for a time of restoration. But God saw fit to call us to move to a new area, three hours away from all the family and friends we knew. We were asked to move to Northern PA while we were still in Haiti and we made that decision six weeks after returning home. The only person we knew in our new area was a single lady who had also served in Haiti as a school teacher under SLM. Once again God stretched my faith to show me that He truly is enough for me and He will meet my needs. Three years after moving into the area my husband was ordained minister in June, 2003, three weeks before the birth of our third child. In September, 2017, he was ordained to take the bishop responsibility for our church. Because I knew that Bernell felt a calling to ministry as a child, his ordination did not come as a surprise to me, but was more of an answer to the question of our hearts – where and how do want us to serve you, Lord?
JH: How can we as wives best support and walk alongside our husbands particularly in the area of ministry?
JB: I believe the greatest gift we can give to our husbands is prayer, asking God to guide and direct them in their ministry. The second thing that comes to my mind is cheerfully sharing him with those he is called to serve. This isn’t something I have mastered perfectly, but it is my desire and goal.
JH: God gifted you a precious daughter, Chelsea. She was tenderly received into Jesus’ arms at 4 ½ years. As a parent of a toddler, I can not imagine the heartache, grief your heart has known. Assuredly, the ache remains; she will always be your treasured little girl. Can you tell us briefly about this journey and what has brought the deepest healing to your heart?
JB: Chelsea was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor at the age of 26 months. She battled the disease for 2-1/2 years until she passed away on January 25, 2008. There were two times that Chelsea was out of treatment for about 3 months before the disease relapsed, but the rest of that time our lives revolved around taking blood tests, hospital stays for chemo, clinging to God while we waited for the latest test results and rushing off to the hospital whenever Chelsea had a fever.
I firmly believe that all comfort and healing comes from the heart of our Father God, but that many times He chooses to use the hands and feet of His daughters to administer that healing to the brokenhearted. I am so thankful for my faithful friends and family members who stood by me through the most difficult and intense years of grief and who, even today, 12 years later, still remember our family at the anniversary of Chelsea’s death and her birthday each year. Having others remember Chelsea with us is very healing to my mother-heart.
JH: How did this loss impact your family?
JB: By the time of Chelsea’s death, we were already exhausted, physically, spiritually and emotionally, from the years of her illness.This left us with little resources to fall back on when the ravages of grief hit hard. There was a period of time when our marriage suffered deeply as my husband and I were both so entrenched in our own pain that we seemed to have little energy left to care for each other. As parents, we struggled to reach out to our children and care for their grieving hearts, as well. Looking back now, there are things we wish we had done differently. There are places where we see things possibly could’ve been better if we had sought out more help to guide us through this difficult time, but the past is no longer before us and we choose to give our failures to God and ask Him to bring healing to our broken places. We thank Him for the continued work of redemption He is doing in our family.
JH: Despite the hardships, the places you never dreamed you would have to go, you speak of God’s goodness and His presence. One of the things that humanity struggles, grapples with is understanding God’s goodness in the midst of pain and knowing that we were created for more. How have you come to a place of rest and faith in the goodness of God with your own story?
JB: I have a specific story of how God made the fact of his unchanging goodness real to me. A few months after Chelsea was diagnosed with cancer, we randomly met up with a couple who had also served in Haiti while we lived there. At that point Chelsea was doing very well and her treatment was going smoothly, with no real bumps along the road. As we were sharing with our friends how well Chelsea was doing we glibly stated “Yes, God has been so good.” The man looked at us and knowingly replied, “Yes, God is ALWAYS good.” He didn’t go on to say more about it at that moment, but I thought about his statement later. This family had lost two children in an accident several years prior to our time of sharing. We were there easily testifying to God’s goodness while things were going “well” for us, but this man was testifying to God’s goodness with two of his children buried. Each time we faced a downward turn in the road of Chelsea’s journey, God brought those words back to me. That man’s simple statement has stayed with me through all these years and God has used it to etch His goodness into my heart and soul.
JH: We look forward to having you share aspects of your story at Refresh. You will be speaking during the session, “Offering Compassion in the Face of Loss.” While your loss gives you credibility to speak about hard places, we anticipate hearing how the Father carried you, sustained you and what it looked like for others to tangibly show up for you. We anticipate hearing practical ways we as sisters can care well for those who are experiencing loss. How can we pray for you as you prepare?
JB: I would love to have you join me in prayer as I prepare for my part of this topic! My desire is that I would be able to share the things the Lord has taught me through our times of loss in a way that will be inspiring, hopeful and helpful to each of the ladies who has a friend who is grieving. For those who may themselves be in the midst of grief, I pray they will know they are not alone. Jesus walks beside us through the darkest of times and, in addition, there really are other sisters out there who have known this pain, as well.
JH: Thanks for being with us today! We look forward to being together at Refresh 2020.
JB: Thank you, too! It’s been a pleasure to share this time with you!