Mandy Harvey’s journey from hearing loss to the finals of AGT, and the family who wouldn’t give up on her.
By Joe Harvey
As I write this article, my wife, Val, and I are sitting in a hotel room in Los Angeles busying ourselves with work as we await the contestants’ final performances on America’s Got Talent for 2017. Tonight, our daughter Mandy Harvey will sing another original song and play her ukulele. Val and I will sit in the lower balcony, stage left, and watch in wonder, sometimes literally holding our breath, as the grand finale unfolds before us. Then, tomorrow, America will decide where Mandy fits among the best of the best in this year’s competition. The doors open in just five hours. This is a marvelous day!
Last night, the three of us sat in a room at Loews Hollywood Hotel and talked about possibilities for the future. Mandy was still “made up” from an earlier rehearsal, but she had left her performance dress backstage and was now a visual representation of two worlds colliding. Her face and hair screamed, “Welcome to Hollywood, darling!” but her T-shirt and sweatpants said, “I could use a slice of pizza with gluten-free crust.”
I am still getting used to the idea that Mandy is becoming a celebrity. Her talent, determination, and compassion amaze me, but I still see the little girl who stood outside Disney’s Country Bear Jamboree and declared that she had just seen something “eemazing!”
It isn’t just her world that is changing. Val and I sometimes look at each other in wide-eyed wonder. We know that her story is also our story. It is more than her personal journey. It is an exposé of our family. Everyone wants to know the secret to Mandy’s “success.” How did she survive the death of her dreams several years ago? What role did her family play in her survival and revival?
What We Gave Mandy
If this article was about someone else’s kid, I might be inclined to make bold declarations about the importance of having solid parenting skills, creating nurturing family support networks, and establishing clear and substantial values and beliefs so our kids have an emotional, philosophical, and spiritual foundation from which to face the inevitable challenges of life. Since it is my kid, I’ll just humbly say that Val and I did what all parents do: We gave away the grace (ideas, attitudes, compassion, and convictions) God had given us. We did the best we could to be a blessing, a God-honoring source of joy, for our daughter.
What did that look like? What did we have to give her when her world fell apart?
A Theology of Pain. We gave her an example of authentically imperfect faith that gives rise to hope.
Every family has a climate and a culture. The climate is the feel of the group and the culture is its language and longings. Our family is realistically hopeful. That’s the feeling you will get from us. We have a shared understanding of faith that embraces the harsh realities of life and the goodness of God. We live in a broken world and we all are fragile. One day God will set things right, but for now, sorrow and joy are both served from the same cup.
So then, Val and I gave Mandy a theology of pain that never defined joy in terms of happiness. Ours was the language of hope in spite of harsh realities. Joy, to us, is a choice—it’s not dependent on circumstances. When the worst came for Mandy—when she became deaf during her first year of college—it did not come disguised as divine displeasure or malice. Mandy could see beyond the pain to a compassionate God who engages and supports us as we muddle our way through the issues of genetic flaws, bad choices, unfortunate circumstances, and personal and corporate sin. She was angry, confused, depressed, and numb at times, but in the background there was always a loving Father God who was acquainted with her sorrow and moved by her tears. We gave her a longing for a better day and a better place, and a realization that Heaven and earth are two different places.
A Profound Potential to Make a Difference. We gave her a mind-set of stubborn resolve that rejects self-pity. That’s the way we roll in our family. We do not quit, and we do not waste time feeling sorry for ourselves. It is a matter of personal integrity and purposeful living.
Mandy tells the story of a mission trip she participated in when she was middle school age. It was an inner-city trip and the kids provided food, clothing, and encouragement for homeless people. On that trip, Mandy met a woman living on the street who was once a gifted dancer—a ballerina from Russia. She came to the United States to pursue her dream of becoming a professional dancer, but things went horribly wrong. When Mandy met her, she was riddled with health problems and crippling addictions. She told Mandy that her dreams had died and that she had given up.
Our gift to Mandy was a worldview that values every person and sees each as having not only great worth, being made in the image of God, but also profound potential to make a needed difference in this world—one that has lasting value and consequences inside a God-crafted story. It is a picture of life that keeps you going when times are tough, and which drives you to do the right thing, as best as you understand it, even when doing so is inconvenient and painful. We gave her a tenacious sense of having a meaningful existence.
Mandy persevered when it seemed her life had gone horribly wrong. She simply was not ready or willing to give up on her dream.
An Unrelenting Love. We gave her an unrelenting love that reveals itself in patience and abiding presence. There was no other option. Her pain cut straight to the bone and it was not going away quickly. Losing her hearing meant realigning her entire life. It pulled her into the hard work of self-examination and forced her to face the superficialities in her identity, relationships, and faith. To paraphrase Rich Mullins, everything that could be shaken was shaken, and all that was left was all she ever really had.
It was a long and arduous process that lasted years—the first 12 months being the most intensive. We, her parents, along with family and friends, had to stay the course with her. We were there for her. We cut her some slack when her sorrow got the best of her, but we never allowed her to stay stuck. We would loan her some of our hope for her future and help her make small steps toward it.
Mandy wrote the song “Try” to capture this reality in her life. The song was directly inspired by her friendship with Erik Weihenmayer—whom she met through an organization called No Barriers. Erik was the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest on May 25, 2001. He challenged Mandy to write her own songs. Mandy wrote “Try” and hasn’t slowed down since. She refused to give up, in part, because those of us who loved her refused to give up on her. We were patiently present in her life.
At this point, I must note that Val and I were humble borrowers and grateful stewards in Mandy’s story.
None of our blessings originated with us. Instead, it was the legacy of our faith and family operating within the providential care of God. That is what we believe. It was not part of some master plan. It was a prayerful adventure coming into shape day by day. As a person of faith, I have no way of knowing all the ways God moved through the thoughts, words, and interaction of those hard times. I am only grateful that he did. And why wouldn’t he? After all, Mandy is his kid.
That is what I mean when I say that Val and I were grateful stewards. We had an understanding that our children do not really belong to us. They grow up and they become independently related to God. God doesn’t know Mandy solely through me. He and I are co-creators relative to the physical life of my daughter, in some unequal sense, but he is her true eternal Father. I am good with that!
As I sit in the hotel room waiting, I am also strumming a tune on Mandy’s ukulele. Almost invariably I end up playing “Try”—a song that is easy to play but terribly difficult to sing. The song now reminds me of her audition for America’s Got Talent. I will forever close my eyes and see that red dress she wore and remember her words about walking out onto that stage before an audience of millions: “I showed up.”
That day was about courage. Mandy says previous to that moment her life had too often been controlled by fear. In my opinion (I don’t speak for Mandy) she was afraid to participate in AGT because doing so would invite criticism and even personal attacks. Some would say she was using deafness to her advantage. Some would say she was too good and wasn’t really deaf. Some would say she didn’t represent the deaf community appropriately. Some would say she was having success only because people felt sorry for her. Nevertheless, she walked out on that stage and refused to let fear rob her of the opportunity to achieve her goal of being a professional singer and songwriter.
What Mandy Gave Me
So, now, here I am, her dad, asking myself how I have let fear define the possibilities in my life. I find that I want to follow her example. My daughter is a blessing to me. She inspires me to want to take chances and risk more to live out my own God-honoring goals and dreams.
As I stop to think about it, she has blessed my life in so many ways. She has helped me see the power of kindness. She has demonstrated the important truth that people are looking for hope and that faith is kept alive day by day. Her discipline and determination call me to a life of greater excellence. Her creativity and deep inner passion for music inspire me to attend to matters of the heart. Her humility humbles me.
For about 10 years I served on the staff of LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado. Our kids (Katie, Mandy, Sammi, and Josh) grew up there. Back then, it was typical for people to refer to one of them in relation to me. People would look at Mandy and say, “That’s Joe Harvey’s daughter.” It was a large church and most everyone knew me. My kids carried my name with them, and I always hoped that it would be a source of joy for them.
Now, I am frequently introduced as Mandy Harvey’s dad—even in higher education or ministry contexts. I am OK with that! Val and I are both delighted when people look at our daughter and give us the thumbs up—as if to say, “You all done good!” This is true for all of our children—they have all become adults whom we admire, respect, and enjoy. We have been blessed and God gets the glory!
Mandy Harvey performed the original song “This Time” on the finals of America’s Got Talent on September 19. The next night it was announced she was the fourth-place finisher on the show.
Joe Harvey serves as the assistant dean for the School of Congregational Ministry and a professor at Johnson University Florida. Joe and Valerie live in Central Florida, as does their daughter Mandy Harvey, an award-winning singer and songwriter.