(Photo: Saddleback PICS Ministry/Robert Ortiz)
LAKE FOREST, Calif. – A colorful and moving tribute to the life of Jessica Joy Rees, a 12-year-old Southern California girl who led a national campaign to help children suffering from cancer before she herself succumbed to brain tumors last week, was attended by thousands of people at Saddleback Church Wednesday evening.
More than 3,400 inside the Orange County church’s main worship center, hundreds more in two overflow venues on the church campus, and a live webcast audience size yet to be determined, shared tears with Jessica’s father, ministry pastor Erik Rees, as he led the service. Later, near the end of the service, lead pastor Rick Warren gave a message centered on Bible verse John 3:16.
Jessica began a tremendous following after being diagnosed with cancer 10 months ago and then, a few months later, launching her “Joy Jars” campaign aimed at bringing hope to children with cancer across the nation.
Her impact locally and nationally continues to spread even after her death. The name of her already established foundation, NEGU (Never Ever Give Up), has been seen (in blue and white colors) everywhere, including on banners, clothing, and tattoos. The large number of young girls in attendance at the service, many in the same age range as “Jessie,” was quite evident.
Individually and in groups, people of all ages have congregated online at Facebook to share their stories of having received inspiration from Jessica and report on their Joy Jars projects. Her Facebook page now has more than 116,000 followers.
“She knew how cancer made you feel lonely, and limited, and labeled, but she also knew love could make pain, fear, confusion, and worry fade away for a moment,” said Rees, fighting back tears as he did many times during the service. “So, she stuffed love in a jar so passionately. She knew what the Bible taught: a cheerful heart is good medicine.”
While a worship band, led by singer-composer Travis Ryan, began the service, an artist started painting on three large canvases that were later joined to spell, “J-O-Y.” The family friend continued to paint until the service ended.
“For the last seven months, Jessie and I would make Joy Jars every Monday in the Joy Factory, aka, our garage, for the courageous kids around the country fighting cancer,” Rees explained. “I’d read the information we received from each child and she would make the jar just the way she felt fit.”
“Her wish was that she would send one to every kid fighting cancer, which is over 50,000 children today in hospitals. We ended last year with over 3,000 jars stuffed. I will miss making Joy Jars with Jessie, but I will make sure every kid gets their jar. I promise you sweat pea.”
Rees, who said at the outset of the service that he was going to lead everyone in a colorful journey, painting a clearer picture of Jessica’s life, was followed onstage by Warren.
During Warren’s message he invited those in attendance who did not have a relationship with Jesus Christ to ask Him into their hearts. When asked to stand, while others remained with their heads bowed in prayer, more than 150 people stood to be led in a prayer to accept Jesus. Many of those appeared to be Jessica’s peers.
Earlier in the service, Rees outlined what he believed to be God’s purpose for Jessica.
“I believe God used Jessie to teach us to love compassionately,” he said. “Growing up, she loved to hug and hold hands. Physical touch was clearly her love language. She was such an example of love and compassion, a real model of Proverbs 3:27, which says, ‘Do not withhold good from those that deserve it when it is in your power to act.’”
“Jessie never withheld good from anybody,” he then paused before saying, “Well maybe her brother and her sister sometimes,” to which many in the crowd laughed.
“She always looked for others that needed help and were left out.”