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From his wheelchair, John Terry looked out over a crowd double the size of the normal gathering at Columbus Baptist Church recently.
“If I had known I could fill this church like this,” he cracked, “I would have gotten sick a whole lot sooner.”
People laughed through their tears.
The 74-year-old Terry, music director at the church for 10 years, and at other area churches for more than 20 years before that, was diagnosed a few weeks ago with inoperable pancreatic cancer. Doctors told him that by the time he went for treatment at Columbus Regional Hospital, the cancer had spread throughout his body.
The gathering was a gospel sing fundraiser for the Columbus resident who has been singing Southern gospel since his boyhood. A crowd of 210 people raised $5,000 to help with medical bills and funeral expenses. Terry said doctors told him he may have only a couple more months to live.
“Singing is what I was called to do,” Terry said. “The Lord has wanted me to spread his word through music.”
So he has done just that.
In recent years, Terry performed mostly with The Singing Sands group traveling throughout the state, or the Columbus Baptist Church Trio alongside Danell Evans and Kim Kennedy. Both tearfully refer to Terry as a father figure.
“He shows that he cares,” Kennedy said in an emotional voice while acknowledging that she’s still struggling to accept Terry’s prognosis. “He really knows how to serve.”
Besides selecting and arranging all the music for church services for a decade, ever since his retirement from Columbus’ Golden Foundry, Terry has arranged for rotating musicians to play.
Beyond weekends, he has mowed the church grounds regularly, along with the properties of various church members unable to do so for themselves.
He noticed a few months ago that he was losing his appetite — and becoming short of breath. He got sidetracked slightly about his health when longtime friend Windell Pierce, the leader of the Singing Sands, died in June.
“I just went to pieces,” Terry said.
Yet, he held together in August when a local surgeon told him they had found cancer in him. Death does not move the man who has sung of the promise of heaven with various groups since 1958.
“I’m looking it dead in the eye,” he said. “And I’m ready for it.”
He acknowledged that wife Marcella clearly feels deep emotion and grief over his condition: “She’s had it pretty rough lately.”
He merely is grateful for the help of Our Hospice of South Central Indiana nurses, who arrive daily to assist with his care.
He began singing with his family around the piano at age 7 in his native Silverville, near Bedford.
“Our parents put the enthusiasm in us all,” Terry said. “I don’t know how to describe it.
“But I just feel it inside. And that’s the way I sing it.”
Although he was 40 pounds lighter than normal and noticeably weak during the recent fundraiser, he sang the heaven-focused tune, “What a Day That Will Be” with his brothers.
In part, they crooned: “There’ll be no sorrow there/No more burdens to bear/No more sickness, no pain/No more parting over there.”
“In some of the songs,” Terry said, “I missed a few of the words — because I was crying.”
So were others such as Evans.
“He has touched hundreds and hundreds of lives,” she said, adding that he has long been known as an encourager to musicians and other singers, among others.
More than anything, he remembers the joy he has felt at concerts when people stepped forward to make a proclamation of faith. Somehow, he hopes his current situation will get the attention of relatives who currently are non-Christians
He already has asked that, after his passing, cards at the funeral home carry his favorite Scripture from Psalm 121: “I will lift up mine eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help.”
Terry, who has spent a lifetime fixing his gaze there, anyway, can think of no better focus for today.
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