BY KEVIN BIRNBAUM
The ferry pushes off from the Friday Harbor dock and rumbles up to cruising speed. Soon it is gliding swiftly across the rippling waters as, all around, the lush green San Juan Islands rise dramatically out of the expanse. Overhead, a few cotton-puff clouds hang low in a bright blue sky.
Onboard, Joyce Crain is focused not on the scenery, but on Scripture.
As she leads a discussion about the man born blind in the Gospel of John, she nimbly navigates her leather-bound Bible, cross-referencing a dozen books of the Old and New Testaments to add color and context to the story of healing and faith.
Crain is the facilitator of Faith on the Ferry, a women’s Bible study started earlier this year at St. Francis Parish in Friday Harbor. On the first Wednesday morning of each month, the women meet for study and fellowship on the ferry, which travels a circuit of San Juan, Orcas, Lopez and Shaw islands.
St. Francis parishioner Vikky Dauciunas hatched the idea for Faith on the Ferry in response to Pope Benedict XVI’s call for a Year of Faith, which runs through Nov. 24. She encouraged Crain, a 2006 convert to Catholicism, to lead the study.
Crain hopes to help the women of Faith on the Ferry have the kind of life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ through the Gospel of John that she experienced more than 40 years ago — an encounter that has shaped her life ever since.
It was the summer of 1969, and Joyce Crain was in a crisis.
She was desperately unhappy in her marriage and wanted to leave her husband, Brian, but she had just given birth to their first son. She didn’t know what to do, and the God she’d once known seemed distant at best.
As a child growing up in Mountlake Terrace in the ’50s, Joyce had been drawn to the Lutheran church across the street, and would often drag her brother along to services. She was baptized there in her early teens and soon started teaching Bible school. Each night before bed, she read the psalms and found great comfort in them.
She met her future husband as a student at the University of Washington, and soon they were bonding as two-thirds of a folk-pop trio. Brian also had been baptized as a teenager, but by the time they married in 1966, they were both “very fallen-away Christians,” Joyce said.
Money and pleasure became the center of their lives, God was pushed to the periphery, and their relationship began to founder.
By the summer of ’69, things were bad enough that Brian went to stay with friends. While he was gone, Joyce visited a dentist with a penchant for proselytizing.
“He would fill my mouth with Novocain and preach to me,” she said, “and I got really mad.”
As the appointment began, the dentist told her, “You’re going to accept the Lord today.”
Mostly to shut him up, Joyce agreed.
The dentist was ecstatic. He quickly expounded the basics of the Christian message, then encouraged Joyce to pray, “Jesus, come into me.”
Though her heart wasn’t fully in it, that simple prayer would prove to be a pivotal moment in her life’s voyage.
She went home not feeling any different, but she gave her husband a call. “I said, ‘This is what I did today, but don’t get excited.’ But he did get excited.”
Brian had just finished reading the New Testament cover to cover. He’d had a powerful experience of Christ re-entering his life, and he longed for Joyce to have the same experience. He took a week off from work and told Joyce they were going to read the Bible together.
“And so we did,” she said. “We took the baby out … and sat by the river and read and read and read.”
Little changed in Joyce’s heart that week. Nevertheless, after Brian returned to work, she continued to read — until she got to the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John and the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.
“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst,” Jesus told the woman. “The water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
As she read, Joyce felt as if she had become the woman at the well.
“And it was just like Jesus was talking directly to me,” she said, “and I knew I was so thirsty for that living water.”
Shortly thereafter, she recalled her words in the dentist’s office — “Jesus, come into me” — and prayed, “Jesus, if you are in me, please win the battle going on inside me.”
Suddenly, she sensed that Jesus was in the room with her, so powerfully that she gasped, “You really did rise from the dead!”
“And at the same time, love just poured into me, just like I was a vessel,” she said. “Even though I didn’t have naturally the love that I should have for my husband, I knew that … Christ was giving me his love, and he wanted us to stay to-gether.”
They did stay together. And from that point on, Joyce said, “We became very excited Christians.”
Joyce poured herself into the study of Scripture. She and Brian joined a North American Baptist church, and she re-sumed the busy schedule of ministry and teaching she had begun as a teenager.
But she couldn’t stay put in one church. She became a Presbyterian in the ’80s and an Episcopalian in the ’90s, and was actually on track for ordination in both churches.
She was propelled from denomination to denomination in part by a desire she didn’t fully understand — for holy Communion to be the center of worship, rather than a long sermon.
That desire, among other factors, eventually led her to the Catholic Church. In 2005, she approached Father Raymond Heffernan, then pastor of St. Francis Parish, and asked for instruction in the faith. She was received into full communion with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil in 2006.
Joyce now recognizes the Eucharist as the fulfillment of her youthful prayer, “Jesus, come into me.”
“The Eucharist is … a great, precious, objective gift that the Lord has given the world to give them this indwelling of himself that he wants all of his children to have,” she said.
As a Catholic, Joyce has found a happy balance between her inner Martha and Mary, the sisters whose home Jesus visited in the Gospel of Luke. After decades of working like Martha, she’s become more of a Mary, finding peace in quiet contemplation and intercessory prayer.
Leading Faith on the Ferry just kind of fell into her lap, and she sees God’s hand in it.
She’d always had a hunch that God would use her life in small ways. Shortly after her intense encounter with Christ 44 years ago, she wrote in her journal: “I think the Lord is telling me very powerfully that it’s the little things that are the big things.”
She believes Faith on the Ferry is one of those big things in disguise. “I have this deep love of [the Gospel of] John,” she said, “and I know that Christ himself can be powerfully encountered in that book.”
And she loves studying Scripture as a Catholic because she can draw on “the treasures of the church” — the writings of great saints and theologians who have gone before her.
Only time will tell whether Joyce’s little Bible study will bear big fruit. She’s not concerned. She only desires that God allow her whole being to “be ministry” to others.
That is her prayer each morning as she rises from bed and lifts her hands to the heavens: “Father, I trust you. Jesus, I trust you. Come, Holy Spirit. Help me to live this day in a way that delights you.”
August 23, 2013