WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. — For five years after the death of her son, Jill Biden says, she lost her faith in God. She “felt betrayed, broken” when Beau died of brain cancer at 46, and she had stopped going to church or even praying, she told the congregants of Brookland Baptist Church late Sunday afternoon. But she found her way back, and over the weekend traveled nearly 500 miles to surprise the woman who’d helped her get there.

Robin Jackson, the wife of the church’s pastor, is that woman, and in 2019, Biden said, she “changed my life.” That’s when Jackson approached Biden during a service and said she’d like to become her “prayer partner.” Biden didn’t know what a “prayer partner” was, she told PBS in 2020, but she was intrigued. They’ve kept in regular contact, and have been praying together, ever since. Every Wednesday for the past 2½ years, Jackson has texted Biden some words of prayer or just let her know that she’s been praying for her, and Biden texts back, no matter how busy she is.

“I don’t know if she sensed how moved I had been by the service,” said Biden, about that moment she first met Jackson. “I don’t know if she could see the grief that I feel still hides behind my smile. But I do know that when she spoke, it was if God was saying to me, ‘Okay, Jill, you’ve had enough time. It’s time to come home.’”

Biden’s visit came as a surprise to Jackson — the result of elaborate efforts by the first lady and her staff, and Jackson’s friends and family, to keep it quiet. Jackson had been awaiting an already-thrilling event: a 50th anniversary celebration for her husband, Pastor Charles B. Jackson Sr., who’s been leading this congregation for half a century. Robin noticed state troopers and Secret Service stationed outside the church, according to Anthony Bernal, senior adviser to Biden, but when she asked about the extra security, her family told her it was because Rep. James E. Clyburn, a longtime South Carolina Democratic congressman, was coming. (He was not.)

Then Biden walked in, bearing a giant bouquet of red roses.

Biden joined the Jacksons in the first row of pews inside the megachurch, swaying to rousing renditions of hymns like “How Great Thou Art,” and “Oh How Precious,” and standing up to applaud the choir — one of the few White faces amid a predominantly Black congregation of hundreds, on a South Carolina Sunday filled with fantastic church hats. And in front of that crowd, Biden stood up and gave the deepest, most comprehensive account of losing her faith and coming back to it that she’s told to date.

Although the first lady has spoken about her relationship with Jackson, she hasn’t mentioned her by name until now.

The two women met on the first Sunday of May 2019, Biden told the congregation. That was about 10 days after her husband had declared he was running for president. They’d come to this service in South Carolina as part of the campaign circuit all Democratic presidential candidates were making. The state’s primary was the fourth contest on the schedule, and it’s where now-President Biden, crucially, won big after poor finishes in the other three.

During that service, Jackson saw President Biden and the first lady become emotional while listening to the choir, she told Live 5 WCSC, a local TV outlet, in 2020. Joe Biden reached over to Jackson and told her that the music reminded him of his son’s funeral. After the service, she and the first lady exchanged phone numbers.

“Every Wednesday following that Sunday, my mother would text a prayerful reminder of God’s favor upon us,” Robin’s son, Pastor Charles B. Jackson Jr., said on Sunday. “And this lady of such high and great status and stature would return a text.” His mother would return that one, and another would come back from Biden. “And this would continue all the way till today.”

Her office did not publicly announce Sunday’s visit and Biden’s team tried to keep their footprint small and stealthy, which is to say a motorcade of only six cars and just four staff members. She sat through an hour and a half of speeches and hymns. Then Biden stood to congratulate Pastor Jackson but also highlighted “a different leader in this church: first lady Jackson” — a line that received a standing ovation.

Biden has talked about her relationship to her faith before. Losing Beau, and with him her faith, consumes the closing chapter of her memoir, “Where the Light Enters,” which also came out in May 2019, two days after that fateful meeting with Robin Jackson in South Carolina. After Beau’s death in 2015, she writes, “I feel like a piece of china that’s been glued back together again.”

Joe Biden drew on his Catholic faith. He loved reading the hundreds of letters that Americans had sent to the White House after Beau’s death, seeing them as a chance to remember what Beau meant to people.

Jill Biden handled her grief differently. She says in the book that she stopped going to church with Joe and their grandchildren. The letters addressed to her sat in a bag in her closet, unopened.

“I’m not very public about my faith,” Biden told the church congregants. “But it’s always been an important part of who I am. I chose it as a teenager when I fell in love with the peace of the quiet wooden pew, the joy of the choir like this magnificent choir here, and the deep wisdom of the Gospels. Prayers especially are a way that I connect to people that I love and to the world around me.”

Her parents were “self-proclaimed ‘agnostic realists’” who never took Biden or her sisters to church, she writes in her memoir, but she went with both of her grandmothers, one a Baptist and one a Presbyterian. She liked the feel of the tiny Presbyterian church more and in her sophomore year of high school found a nearby Presbyterian church and started taking membership classes, becoming an official member at age 16. Her two younger sisters did the same when they became teenagers.

Things changed for her when Beau got sick. “For over a year I watched my brave, strong, funny, bright young son fight brain cancer,” Biden told the church, her voice trembling with emotion, words getting lost as she choked back tears. She never gave up hope that he would live, she said, despite the terrible odds the doctors gave for his survival. “In the final days,” she said, “I made one last prayer, and it went unanswered.”

Her minister would write her occasional emails, checking in, inviting her back to the service. “But I just couldn’t go,” she said. “I couldn’t even pray. I wondered if I would ever feel joy again.”

She didn’t pray for years until she met Jackson, she said. “And in that moment, I felt for the first time that there was a path for my recovering my faith.”

Jackson, she said, showed her that she could ask for help. “In the depths of our brokenness we can start to believe that healing ourselves will never be possible,” Biden said. “And the truth is, we’re right. We can’t heal ourselves alone. But with God all things are possible.”

Praying with Jackson, she said, brought her comfort on the campaign trail and made her see the myriad little ways strangers help one another, just like a stranger had helped her in her darkest hour. “Robin’s kindness, her mercy and grace pushed past the calluses on my heart,” she said, “and like the mustard seed, my faith was able to grow once again.”