The Rev. Wilber H. Benz Jr., who was pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Hampstead, died of liver and kidney failure yesterday at the Markey Cancer Center in Lexington, Ky. He was 47.
On July 19, he underwent a bone-marrow transplant intended to rid his body of chronic myelogenic leukemia, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Funeral services for Mr. Benz will be 11 a.m. Friday at the Westminster Baptist Church, 354 Crest Lane, Westminster. Viewing hours will be 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday at the Eline Funeral Home, 934 S. Main St., Hampstead.
A native of Tampa, Fla., Mr. Benz settled in the area in 1982 as pastor of Hampstead Baptist Church and later founded Faith Baptist Church.
His warm personality, quick smile and concern for others drew increasing numbers of people each Sunday to the cafeteria at Hampstead Elementary school, a temporary meeting place for the churchgoers until their own building on Harvey Gummel Road is completed.
The illness added a new, somewhat circular aspect to his ministry to the people of Faith Baptist Church, Mr. Benz said in an Evening Sun interview last November. "They're grieving, and I'm their pastor, and I'm supposed to respond to their grief," he said. "At the same time, I'm the one they're grieving over."
It was Mr. Benz's hope to return to see the completion of the new building, which will feature a day-care center.
"We were all very hopeful that he would make it through this," said Gary Bowers, chairman of the deacon board at Faith Baptist Church. "We all knew that odds for his recovery were only 40 percent.
"Reverend Benz had a strong belief that he would be able to continue his work and we all believed it, too. But we also knew that if it didn't work out he would be in a better place . . . that he would be in God's hands," Mr. Bowers said.
Mr. Benz's yearlong struggle with cancer had been an up-and-down battle. Faith's close-knit congregation of nearly 100 did not mind sharing the struggle with his wife, Linda, and their daughters, Shannon, 17, and Lauren, 12.
After learning last summer that their pastor was afflicted with leukemia and had a one-in-20,000 chance of finding a donor whose blood type matched the pastor's, the congregation sponsored local blood drives, drawing almost 1,000 people throughout the region.
In the months that followed, some parishioners offered the pastor words of wisdom and faith, as well as suggestions of massive doses of Vitamin E, carrot juice and other home remedies purported to cure cancer.
In November, Mr. Benz learned his white cell count was approaching the point where he would have to be careful about exposure to infection. At the same time, he often found himself having to comfort others who started out trying to comfort him.
"I'm really vulnerable," he said then. "I stand at the door every Sunday and shake hands with 75 people. I hug them. I shake their hands." He speculated on how he could ever do his work without close human contact. "I'm not the sort of person to retreat from all that."
The spirits of his parishioners were dampened when a Washington hospital refused to perform the transplant without a perfect donor match. Later, they were overjoyed when the Kentucky hospital approved the procedure using the pastor's youngest daughter as a donor, even though her blood had only four of the six antigens needed.
The congregation held banquets and other fund-raisers to help pay for the pastor's personal expenses and cover medical services that his insurance would not.
Members of the Faith Baptist Church said they did what they would do for any loved one. They accept no praise, they say, only sorrow that they could not be at the pastor's bedside and comfort his family as he lay dying.
"The reality of it has not set in," said William "Skip" Rigler, a member of the church. "Reverend Benz was not just a pastor, he was my friend and a friend to everyone else. He's going to be missed tremendously."
Mr. Bowers concurred.
"Teen-agers loved him because he was just like a big kid with them, carrying on and horsing around at the youth retreats. The senior adults loved him because he was compassionate and understood the problems they had when you get older and your body doesn't function as it used to," he said.