“Man, that guy’s got a voice!” That was my first impression of Joe Hallett.
In the fall of 1990, my wife and I joined Bethlehem Baptist’s young adult Sunday School class. And during the worship times Joe’s voice would soar above everybody’s. He wasn’t a big guy — about 5-foot-7, maybe 130 pounds. But when he sang he was a man among men.
Joe wasn’t shy either. In our first conversation he just laid it out there. A decade earlier he had left college to dive into the gay community — the bars, the trysts, the flamboyant clothes, everything. And it had been exciting and liberating at first, after the misery of his sexually abused childhood and depressed teens. But the “gay lifestyle” turned out to be an empty bag. Like all distortions of human sexuality, “queerness” never delivered the fulfillment it promised.
Then in 1985, through the patient, persistent, pursuing love of a Christian friend, Joe heard the voice of Jesus and left “the lifestyle” to follow him.
But nine months later the doctor spoke the nightmare words: “your blood test was positive.” Joe had full-blown AIDS. In 1986, the prognosis was two years, maybe. Joe believed life was over.
But Jesus didn’t. In fact, what Joe saw as a scorched place God intended to turn into a watered garden (Isaiah 58:11).
God gave him a church family at Bethlehem Baptist and a supportive family in Outpost Ministries' men’s group. Rather than shriveling, Joe flourished, growing in grace and truth and leadership. Soon he was asked to be Outpost’s Ministry Director. An excellent writer and compelling speaker, Joe increasingly found himself publicly preaching the gospel, championing God’s good design in human sexuality, equipping the church to serve the homosexually broken, and comforting the suffering.
Year after year this went on. Joe stopped expecting to die. There was too much kingdom work to do. So much that he recruited me to help him. One night in 1991, he called me. “I need some help at Outpost. The guys I work with need to be around spiritually mature men who don’t struggle with homosexuality. They have to stop seeing themselves as freaks, but as men. Would you help me?” I said yes.
For two years we worked together with real men with real lives. Men I grew to love. Men who grew stronger and sometimes stumbled. Men who had to fight to believe in God’s promises more than the deceitful sin in their broken bodies. Men like me. Homosexuality ceased being an abstract label and became a brokenness I could relate to, something very painful that men I cared deeply for had to deal with daily.
In 1994, Joe gave me the honor of being his best man when God gave him the honor of marrying his long-time friend, Nancy, with whom he got to experience God’s good design for 3.5 years.
Finally, in the summer of 1997, Joe’s health began to fail. He had been very sick before and recovered. But this was different. As weeks passed many of us could tell that he knew the end was coming. But still his joy was infectious.
Once, when pondering death, Joe had written,
I think people are like trees. Some of us will flame brilliantly like sugar maples as we approach death. We will look forward to the promises of God and surrender our lives into his care. But others will wither and cling to the dying ashes of this life. Their self-centered lifestyles will deform them, making them like a twisted oak clutching its dead leaves. I wonder what your autumn will hold?
Joe died September 20, 1997, just when the sugar maples were in flame. He had not clung to dead leaves. He died reaching for the Lord of the Tree of Life in whose leaves is everlasting healing (Revelation 22:2). So the Lord appointed the maples as an honor guard ushering Joe to the land of strong singing and no more sin.
Fifteen years later I miss you, Joe. I miss your soaring songs, your Monte Python quotes, your honest friendship, and your godly example. You were faithful to Jesus unto death (Revelation 2:10), you believed his promises more than you believed your body, you didn’t waste your life, and you didn’t waste your AIDS. The Truth (John 14:6) has now set you completely free (John 8:32). You now have what you longed for most. I wish I could hear you sing.
And since you always liked to have the last word, I’ll let you ask us one more time:
“I wonder what your autumn will hold?”