WESTMINSTER — Nearly 25 years ago, a young minister offered a visiting colleague the use of his empty home.
Eerie noises from the woods behind the house kept the visitor awake and a little edgy.
"Should I be afraid?" the Rev. Billy Barber asked his friend.
"Well, maybe, a little," answered the Rev. Wilbert H. "Bert" Benz. "Amotorcycle gang hangs out back there. I'm trying to convert them."
Those who knew Benz understood Barber's description of his friend'sevangelism.
"Bert could minister to many different strata of society," said Barber, who called himself Benz's father in the ministry. "He could take raw life and shake something vital and good into it."
The story drew a soft ripple of laughter from the nearly 400 people gathered at Westminster Baptist Church on Friday to celebrate Benz's life.
The 47-year-old pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Hampstead died Monday at the University of Kentucky's Markey Cancer Center inLexington after a yearlong struggle against leukemia.
Months before his hospitalization, Benz, a former Marine, had planned his "home-going," asking his friends to offer uplifting words. He also asked for his favorite hymn, "It Is Well With My Soul," which the congregation sang Friday while standing before Benz's flag-draped casket.
"Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul."
"We have to face the future with any empty spot for Bert," said the Rev. Don Brown. "We have the assurance that all is wellwith him."
The message of Benz's life drew people to him, said Hazel Raymond of Gamber, who took part in revival services Benz led.
"You could feel the love of Christ when he came into a room," she said.
In the last conversation Barber had with his friend, Benz had undergone a bone marrow transplant. The donor was his 12-year-old daughter, Lauren.
"He told me 'Billy, I'm gonna make it,' and I say he did," said Barber. Many in the congregation whispered "Amen."
The Rev. Roy D. Gresham, another longtime friend, also spoke of the universality of Benz's mission.
"His years were full, his life gave courage to all who were privileged to serve with him," he said. "The blessed influence of his ministry stretches beyond realization."
That influence, he said, only increased during Benz's illness.
"If he had lived to be 100, he could never have touched as many lives as he did the past few months," he said. "His faith held him and those around him in good stead."
Several people from Gardenside Baptist Church in Lexington made the trip here to honor the man whose last six weeks of life touched them.
"It has been a privilege to be part ofBert Benz's ministry," Gardenside Pastor Ron Fellemende said. "We are better people for it."
The speakers often directed their remarksto Benz's wife and children, sharing the family sorrow while stressing he was in a better place.
"Help this precious family, Lord, move in and comfort them," said Fellemende.
After the service, Linda Benz and her children were the first to leave the church. She walked down the aisle, smiling through her tears. Several members touched her two daughters with gestures of comfort.
Later at Maryland Veterans Cemetery in Owings Mills, Baltimore County, "Taps" sounded as three Marines folded the U.S. flag from the casket. Linda Benz accepted the flag.