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His Father’s world

Joel Belz spent his life unveiling the wonder of God and His creation


Photo by Jeff Wales

His Father’s world
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Joel Belz was just 8 years old when his pastor father acquired a Gordon platen jobber press. It was the 1940s, and Max Belz had dual intentions for the heavy piece of machinery: to provide work for his brood’s hands and a Sunday bulletin for the Cono Center Bible Presbyterian congregation near Walker, Iowa. He placed the press in the basement of their humble church, which made it convenient for budding pressman Joel. The building also served as their home.

Joel and his seven siblings liked to hang out in the print shop among the reams of paper and the small metal blocks with raised letters. They liked the smell of ink and looked forward to proofing by the light of a dangling, fixtureless bulb. Joel, second oldest, particularly enjoyed rolling ink over carefully chosen hymn numbers and Scripture references, then printing enough copies for Sunday’s church service.

One night, just before bed, Joel and his younger brother Mark were cleaning equipment when they noticed a half-dollar-sized hole in a gear of the press. Joel was curious. He asked Mark to roll the flywheel around so he could check it out.

But when Mark obliged, Joel suddenly jumped up and started yelping. He was missing a half-inch of an index finger.

Dr. Claussen, who lived just 2 miles down the road, bandaged him up but could do nothing more—this though Mark had recovered Joel’s ink-stained fingertip.

For the next seven decades, Joel jokingly blamed Mark for crushing his hopes of becoming a concert pianist, maybe even the next Arthur Rubinstein. At least, that’s what Mark says, in the way only a brother can. “Joel didn’t even like the piano. I did. That’s a journalist’s way of coloring things.”

Besides their printing DNA and the thick Belz head of hair, Joel and his siblings shared other traits. Feet supported by fertile Midwestern dirt. Ears tuned to the preaching of God’s Word. Eyes accustomed to wide-open spaces.

It was a good mix. In the midst of that vast—and very rural—perspective, a certain drive gripped Joel. Planted in the middle of a cornfield with a family-­owned printing press, the boy longed for a larger gospel reach.

He got one.

When Joel Belz died Feb. 4, Iowa lost a native son, and Christian journalism lost a founding father. Who would have guessed that a preacher’s kid from flyover country would leave his fingerprints—nine of them, at least—all over the world?

Maybe his college professors had an inkling. His senior project, after all, seemed to point in that direction.

Joel as a little boy.

Joel as a little boy. Photo courtesy of the Belz family

INSIDE THE ENTRANCE to Asheville Christian Academy, strings of paper origami birds, delicate and boldly colored, hang from the ceiling. They are the work of small, careful hands. Beneath their pleated wings students hurry to class. Teachers, clutching clipboards and coffee mugs, join them. It’s 9:38 a.m. Second period is about to begin.

Bill George is the head of school here, just one of the institutions that named Joel Belz as an influential board member. George is 66, with a pep in his step that fits his dress sneakers. During a tour of the school’s facilities, he recalls his 1992 interview for the academy position. “Even though the school wasn’t big or glitzy, there was a treasure here of philosophical depth and ­Biblical understanding of what we’re all about,” he says. “And I would attrib­ute a lot of that to Joel’s presence and wisdom on the board, his leading of devotions, and so on.”

Because Joel believed education was a key to Christian life, his involvement at the school lasted long past his youngest child’s graduation. Whether he was building a stage or crafting an endowment proposal, Joel showed what George likens to farmworker determination: “A sweat and toil ­philosophy. We need to be reminded of that when we start whining about how hard ministry is.”

In the last 30 years, enrollment at Asheville Christian Academy has nearly quadrupled. Building campaigns have been intense. George remembers how Joel, during a budget crunch, responded to his suggestion to put a project on hold.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

“He insisted we complete the structure’s exterior and leave the finishing work to future generations. It’s the building we’re sitting in right now,” George explains, motioning toward a cafeteria, offices, and the origami entrance. The shell of the space sat vacant until a fundraising campaign succeeded 15 years later. George now admits Joel was right to prepare for growth. It’s the way dreamers operate. “Which is really important for anybody who’s going to hatch a ministry like WORLD.”

That’s not the only time George resisted, then embraced, Joel’s influence. When their executive committee used to meet for an à la carte breakfast at Asheville’s J&S Cafeteria, George would cringe as he watched Joel ask for hard-boiled eggs. He knew Joel was going to cut them in half and smear them with butter.

“I thought that was so gross,” George laughs. “Guess what? Now that’s how I eat my eggs.”

Joel with his parents and siblings (standing back right) at their home in Iowa in 1958.

Joel with his parents and siblings (standing back right) at their home in Iowa in 1958. Photo courtesy of the Belz family

TURNS OUT EGGS mixed with a dab of butter, rather than smeared, were a tradition in the Iowa homeplace, along with Bible readings three times a day and weekly hymn memorization. Joel’s father also sought to involve his children in his work. When he was in the grain business, they joined him for the train ride to the Chicago Board of Trade. After he became a pastor, he brought them on church visits and to denominational meetings.

Even so, money was tight. A neighbor noticed and passed along her newspapers. Since old papers were used like plastic wrap back then, Joel didn’t mind doing kitchen cleanup duty. But instead of wrapping leftovers, he’d stand over the sink and devour the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Reading may have opened his mind, but meeting missionaries opened Joel’s world. They arrived in Iowa freshly furloughed from Japan and Australia. India. Africa. Christian speakers, too, and professors from the then-new Covenant College. They came because the Belz family partnered with them in prayer. The children even sent care packages to their foreign addresses. When Max Belz invited them to visit, his wife, Jean, fed them from her garden. The kids lingered around the dinner table for hours, soaking up stories, especially when Francis Schaeffer showed up.

Looking back, Joel’s youngest brother, Andrew, believes those relationships kept their family from feeling isolated. “We had a connected feel, even though we lived rurally. We had ties to churches in bigger areas. We gained a national and international vision for good.”

“Planted in the middle of a cornfield with a family-owned printing press, the boy longed for a larger gospel reach. He got one.

Joel took that vision for good, and the family’s Linotype printing machine, with him when he left for college in 1958. He intended to install the enormous machine in another basement location, but it never made it there. A fall down a flight of stairs rendered the Linotype inoperable forever.

Back then, Presbyterian liberal arts school Covenant College was located in St. Louis, Mo. But the year after Joel earned his English degree, Covenant set its sights on property on Lookout Mountain, Ga. Joel eventually landed there, too.

Along the way, he grew his printing résumé and developed an eye for talent. His brother Tim remembers when Joel passed him a recording he’d made at an event at Cornell College in Iowa. It was the fall of 1962.

“Just listen to this guy,” Joel urged. The speaker was Martin Luther King Jr.

For a boy from the cornfields, the mountainous landscape surrounding the new Covenant campus was enchanting. The gorges and hardwoods. Waterfalls and boulders. But within a decade of arriving there, Joel was taking in the vistas through a new set of eyes. Eyes clouded by one of his greatest griefs.

His first marriage dissolved in 1974, leaving him with a lot to process and two preschool-aged daughters to raise on his own.

Joel as a high school senior in 1958.

Joel as a high school senior in 1958. Photo courtesy of the Belz family

In time, a fellow church member named Carol Esther Jackson noticed the busy man with the wire-rim glasses. He was a church elder, and headmaster of the local Christian school. He also taught at Covenant.

He noticed her, too, and started making lots of visits to Covenant’s library, where she worked. Carol Esther had taken one of Joel’s courses—logic—but her growing debate skills were no match for her father’s objections to a divorced suitor. Carol Esther’s brother-in-law, a pastor, intervened, detailing Scriptural reasons for divorce.

Carol Esther remembers it well. “My dad was devoted to the Lord. If he could see it from Scripture, he was on board. So they totally embraced Joel and the girls. They never delineated between them and our other daughters.”

The couple’s engagement was full of activity, but not the usual type. Joel was in the middle of a building project, the construction of a geodesic dome–style home. It represented the kind of innovative, economical undertaking he’d be drawn to throughout his life.

Carol Esther learned to finish Sheetrock during that venture, and more. “When my mom came for the wedding, she said, ‘You’ve got to do something about those hands.’ We’d been staining cabinets that Joel built.”

Joel was taught to be inquisitive about everything. I’m not sure he would have been if he had lived where he had every resource right at hand.

THE WHIRLWIND that was to become WORLD brought Joel and his family to Asheville in 1977. They purchased a home their five daughters today refer to as “392,” a nod to the street number. Cedar shingles decorate the eaves, and a bay window completes the front. It’s rather nondescript, which may be the point when a mountain beckons from your backyard.

When I visited in October, Carol Esther suggested we talk on the screened-in porch, a place enshrined in visitors’ memories for another Belz dinner tradition—popcorn in glasses of milk. Parkinson’s disease put a damper on Sunday night popcorn gatherings. It ended more grandiose dreams, too. Joel had planned to fill his retirement with speaking engagements, Carol Esther belted in beside him on planes, maybe even the occasional rickshaw.

I remember hearing him mention his diagnosis at a WORLD retreat not long after doctors broke the Parkinson’s news. “Carol Esther just finished taking care of both of her parents until they died,” he said wistfully. “Her reward is to now take care of me.”

No doubt, caregiving takes a toll. Carol Esther wore it on her face, even as she pointed to a spot in the yard where a wooden swing set stood years ago. “Joel drew his own plan and built it himself. He could have gone somewhere and just bought a swing set,” she explained, struggling to find the right word to describe that aspect of her husband’s personality. She finally goes with “can-doism,” something Joel possessed in abundance.

An entrepreneurial bent makes some people rich, but Joel didn’t pursue material gain. That meant a tight budget for the one-car family, and odd jobs for Joel. He kept a printing press for many years, and Carol Esther says a rhythmic tha-dum, tha-dum, tha-dum coming from the basement lulled her daughters to sleep many nights.

Joel and Carol Esther’s wedding day.

Joel and Carol Esther’s wedding day. Photo courtesy of the Belz family

“He was printing the ‘Bulletin News Supplement,’ an insert for churches in our denomination,” she says. “That and a few other things.”

Joel’s sister, Julie Lutz, believes his “can-doism” was tied to his rural upbringing. “Joel was taught to be inquisitive about everything. I’m not sure he would have been if he had lived where he had every resource right at hand.”

It was a personality trait that made Joel interesting. But it was the work of the Holy Spirit in his life that made it an effective ministry tool. He lent energy to a room, offering fascinating conversation with no small talk, no wasted time. Julie says the abruptness even translated to phone calls.

“During one of our last talks, no preliminaries, he said, ‘Julie, you know the situation we’re in right now, somebody in our homes needing care? The devil wants to get in there and cause friction. Don’t let him.’ And then he pretty much hung up.”

That God-given spiritual awareness, combined with ingenuity and zest for life, served Joel well when he put his hand to the plow at WORLD.

His sister is one of the few who remembers Joel’s senior project at Covenant, how it foreshadowed his future like lines from Norton’s Anthology. According to Lutz, Joel spent a whole semester working on a prototype of a Christian daily newspaper. “It was always his ambition.”

Nearly a quarter of a century later, he launched WORLD.

Joel and Carol with their girls in the 1980s.

Joel and Carol with their girls in the 1980s. Photo courtesy of the Belz family

JOEL’S FIRST JOB IN ASHEVILLE, the one that brought him there, was with The Presbyterian Journal, a publication that championed theological conservatism. Under his guidance, the company in 1981 expanded its reach with a newspaper for middle school students. Its content was age-­appropriate and eye-catching, with stories that helped readers explore the world and consider how God was at work in it.

It’s God’s World scored big with Christian families, and demand for a parallel news publication for adults grew. In 1986, Joel and a skeletal staff responded with the inaugural edition of WORLD Magazine. Congressmen Phil Gramm and Warren Rudman graced the cover. Troubles with Sandinista terrorists got coverage inside.

Forty years later, WORLD’s “sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth” has become a mantra that keeps more than 100 employees laboring over editorial products for students and adults in print, digital, audio, and video formats. WORLD’s content reaches a half-million readers, listeners, and viewers each month. The company’s weekday podcast, The World and Everything in It, is a Top 100 news program on the Apple platform.

In addition, the World Journalism Institute (WJI) has for more than 20 years trained hundreds of college students in Biblical journalism, adding classes for high schoolers, mid-­career writers, and international reporters along the way.

Joel thrived in his role as churchman communicator, but in a 2021 interview, he acknowledged God used hard times at WORLD—things like money woes, pushback on controversial stories, staff departures—to get his attention, as well as the attention of other staffers. “We could then grab each other and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t about us. This is about the Lord and His purposes.’ Because I’d have to ask myself, ‘Joel, are you just trying to build your own reputation? Or is it the Lord’s reputation you’re trying to build there?’”

Joel and Carol Esther work on correspondence on their porch at “392.”

Joel and Carol Esther work on correspondence on their porch at “392.” Photo courtesy of the Belz family

Statements like that, and a hundred others from his commentaries and columns, signal an understanding of our sinful nature, and not just in a catechistic way. Joel’s “built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness” hope of salvation freed him from pretense. It kept his mind focused on the grace of God instead of how well his boyhood quest for a gospel reach was turning out.

Still, Joel’s kingdom work spread beyond WORLD, even as it absorbed much of his focus. For decades, he invested his energies as a Covenant board member. Niel Nielson, a former Covenant president who worked closely with Joel, says his friend was committed to making sure the college remained doctrinally strong and true to its founding mission.

“The challenge with Christian colleges and universities is once they start to drift, it’s really hard to pull them back,” says Nielson. “So we did some things to make sure we were sinking our foundation deeper into the rock. We addressed gender and sexuality issues, and beliefs about Creation.”

In addition to teaching at the college, Joel saw most of his siblings and his own kids, and several grandchildren, earn a Covenant diploma. His investment went deep.

Nielson recognizes Joel contributed to a huge portion of Covenant’s history. “Certainly with his death, a good deal of that history has been lost,” Nielson laments. “But we thank God for the stories and legacy that he left behind.”

Joel in his office at WORLD News Group in 2018.

Joel in his office at WORLD News Group in 2018. Photo by Jeff Wales

THE WORLD FAMILY is lamenting, too. But not without hope, and not without a trove of Joel’s writings and recordings.

In recent years, the magazine ran some of his classic columns. Commentary executive editor Timothy Lamer says it wasn’t just because Joel’s health was declining. When he was looking for pieces to highlight during WORLD’s 40th anniversary, he found the foresight in Joel’s observations striking.

“He was writing about the national debt. He was writing about shifting attitudes toward LGBT issues and same-sex marriage. And he was doing this early, back when those issues were in seed form. His columns really show how we got to where we are today.”

Archives of Joel’s early work with God’s World newspapers for students are telling, too. Children’s editions were titled It’s God’s World, God’s Big World, Exploring God’s World, and God’s World Today.

“He was in awe of God and full of wonder over His creation,” his brother Andrew says. “He was always about unveiling that wonder.”

A couple of years ago, Joel asked his woodworker son-in-law, Andy Gienapp, to build his casket. Gienapp agreed, sourcing wood from Covenant’s property on Lookout Mountain, Cono, and the Gienapp property in Georgia. Covenant’s official tartan provided the lining.

He was in awe of God and full of wonder over His creation. He was always about unveiling that wonder.

“Daddy’s stipulation was that the casket’s construction not exceed a thousand dollars in materials and time,” Jen Gienapp, the oldest of the Belz daughters, explains. “In materials, it didn’t. But in time spent and tears shed, it was probably well over that.”

Like his concern for practicality, Joel’s belief in the essential value of Christian journalism—funding it, facilitating it—never wavered. And with writers, he knew the power of a well-worded one-liner. My key exchange came over an al fresco lunch during a 2019 WORLD retreat.

“So, what will you do when you run out of stories?” Joel asked me directly, his question as unexpected and characteristically Joel as the bow tie propped against his collar.

At the time, the thought of running out of material had never crossed my mind. Why should it? The man in front of me never had.

Joel’s family says he struggled in his last days with remorse and what ifs. He wondered if he had been the man God wanted him to be. He wondered if he had done what God wanted him to do.

But in the midst of the spiritual warfare, with his faculties failing, Joel cried out with conviction the truth that had seen him through life and would now see him through death. He preached the gospel. To himself.

“I believe. I believe.”

—For more about Joel’s life, or to post a message about his impact on yours, please visit wng.org/joel


Kim Henderson

Kim is a World Journalism Institute graduate and senior writer for WORLD. During her career as a homeschool mom, she worked as a freelance writer. Kim resides in Mississippi with her family.

@kimhenderson319

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