He never considered this world his home and harbored no fear of death.
"I am just passing through here," Rev. Wilbert H. "Bert" Benz Jr. said in his last sermon at Faith Baptist Church in Hampstead on June 30.
The 47-year-old pastor died Monday of leukemia in a Lexington, Ky., hospital. His wife, Linda, clutched his hand one last time as his earthly journey ended.
On Friday, his family and friends will gather to celebrate the life of the man who passed through their lives.
Months ago, as Benz planned that celebration, selecting uplifting music and Scripture passages to celebrate his "going home." He did notwant mourning.
Although determined to fight the disease, diagnosed a year ago, the pastor had a clear vision of the road ahead. He made the decision to risk bone marrow transplant surgery at the University of Kentucky's Markey Cancer Center.
He had prepared himself. The last sermon was to prepare others.
"I can't loose," he said. "IfI don't make it, I'm going to a better place. If I do, I'll be returning to people who love me."
The Rev. Larry Steen, pastor of Westminster Baptist, where funeral services will take place 11 a.m. Friday, called his friend a realist.
"He knew he might be going on to the Lord," he said. "He wanted to save his family any stress and to make his funeral an occasion of joy."
Benz touched many lives, Steen said, and he expects the 375-seat church to be filled Friday with many of those people.
The Rev. Roy D. Gresham, a longtime family friend who officiated at Benz's wedding, will deliver the address.
"Wewill shed tears of sorrow over the separation from Bert," he said. "But we must praise his commitment to the Lord, shown through his acceptance of illness."
Supported by his family and his 102-member congregation, Benz waged a valiant battle against chronic myelogenic leukemia.Using radiation and chemotherapy, surgeons destroyed his diseased marrow and replaced it with healthy marrow from his 12-year-old daughter, Lauren. When his condition deteriorated last week, doctors gave him more marrow.
"She has been one tough little lady," Linda Benz said of Lauren.
Kidney and liver failure, and complications from the surgery, caused his death, doctors said.
"He really, really fought to live," Linda said. "But his death was just God's will. It'strue, even though it hurts."
Gresham called Benz an extrovert, who never met a stranger. In his six weeks at the hospital, Benz's wit made him a favorite with the staff. He also befriended members of Gardenside Baptist Church in Lexington, who gave the family an apartmentand food.
"The scope of his influence really was multiplied by his sickness," said the Rev. Ron Fellemende, pastor of Gardenside. "He probably ministered as many people through his sickness as he did in his daily ministry."
The Hampstead congregation is helping Linda and her two daughters in the difficult time ahead, said Deacon Gary W.Bauer.
"They are our family," he said, adding that members will continue Benz's ministry.
"We are not sad because we all know Bert has gone to a better place," he said. "We are praising the Lord for all Bert was and all we can be through him."
Benz hoped to return in October after recovering from the surgery, said Bauer. The pastor planned to implement his vision of a church that was "open every day to serve the community in every way."
The congregation does not have a building and worships at Hampstead Elementary School. The church owns property on Harvey Gummel Road and plans to build there, possibly next spring. Benz's vision for the new church included day-care facilities and a weekend youth center.
"A church has to be more than just a building in use on Sundays," Benz told Bauer.
"He wanted tobeat the cancer and come home," said Bauer. "Building a church to serve all the community needs was his dream and the congregation will keep that dream alive."
Before Benz left, he wrote his own obituaryand delivered it to Eline Funeral Home. In it, he asked for memorialdonations to the church's building fund.
Chris Poore of the Lexington, Ky., Herald-Leader contributed to this article.