‘It was always joy’: Pastor dies after several years battling ALS


Editor’s note: The Daily Reporter was working with Mark Judy on a story about his illness at the time of his passing. He was last interviewed in late November.

GREENFIELD — Mark Judy spoke of a biblical city of great joy, of evil spirits cast out and paralyzed people who heeded the word of God and were healed of all that ailed them.

The pastor delivered that message this month to the congregation at Hancock Reformed Baptist Church from his wheelchair, reading Acts 8:5-8 from a screen prompting him from the front pew. The rest of the 29-minute sermon, delivered from memory, would be the devoted leader’s last.

Judy, 61, died Wednesday morning after a six-year battle with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Members of the Greenfield church and others who knew the pastor recall the grace with which he bore a disease that robbed him of his strength but not his faith. They were awed as he continued to minister at the church while his illness progressed, delivering that final sermon Dec. 3.

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At its end, he prayed, thanking God for helping him. He’d had a rough night; diminished lung capacity caused by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis was taking its toll, and church members weren’t sure he’d be there to preach that morning.

But there, he was.

“Realizing that any Sunday may be my last Sunday to preach, it’s very easy for me to understand what I must preach, and that is Christ,” Judy said in his prayer. “Help me to do that for as long as you have me here.”

Members say their pastor of 21 years did just that.

A natural leader

Judy grew up in Hancock County. He remembered attending Sunday School and Vacation Bible School at Sugar Creek Baptist Church, but he said he got away from going much during his high school years.

Retired New Palestine High School social studies teacher Marvin Shepler remembers a good student and a hard-working baseball player, one who continued honing his skills in the offseason in an era when such devotion to the game was uncommon.

Judy was charismatic and articulate, Shepler said. It made him a good team leader.

“When Mark had something to say, everybody wanted to listen.”

Judy pursued teaching after high school, attending Ball State University. He financed his education by pulling six night shifts a week at a Muncie radio station, pouring a lot of cups of coffee and spinning records of the Carpenters and John Denver. He was snowed in there for two solid days during the blizzard of 1978 and eventually told listeners he was hungry, prompting a farmer to hop on a tractor to bring him a hamburger.

Judy began reading the Bible during his last semester of college, he said. Even though he would go on to teach radio at Ben Davis High School, those readings stirred a change that would cut his teaching career short, at least in the classroom sense.

Finding his place

One day, he read in the Gospel of Luke about a sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. In Luke 7, Jesus says to her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Judy wanted to be told that, too.

“I said, ‘I don’t think I’m good enough to live the kind of life to go to heaven, (but) I wish you would save me like you did that woman,'” he recalled.

His girlfriend, Beth, made the same decision a few weeks later and was baptized.

Soon after, Judy felt a desire to preach, but he felt conflicted, seeing a difference between simply wanting to lead and being meant to do so.

He married Beth, and they headed to South Carolina, where Judy studied at Bob Jones University.

Then came a call as Judy finished his seminary studies from a church in Florida, in need of someone to lead.

Judy was that someone.

‘He was incredible’

Judy served that Florida church for six years before heading back to Indiana. Hancock Baptist Temple (the previous name of the church) was looking for a pastor, and Judy was a candidate for the position. He wasn’t chosen, though, and continued serving as an interim pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Mohawk.

About a year later, the position was open again, and this time, Judy was selected.

And just like that, he was home.

“I determined, and I believed, … that unless the people got rid of me, I was going to be there the rest of my life.”

More than a pastor

There were about 40 people going to the church back then — there are about 100 now.

John Burkett, 10 years Judy’s senior, was one of them.

He remembers feeling skeptical of the new leader at first.

“What’s this young whippersnapper going to teach me?” he remembers thinking.

But that feeling soon changed, and Burkett’s heart quickly warmed to the man who stood alongside his family in both times of grief and celebration.

Judy would go on to officiate the funeral of Burkett’s father-in-law and the weddings of both his daughters. He would offer support after the death of a granddaughter.

He became more than a pastor to the family.

“He was my shepherd,” Burkett said. “He was incredible in my life.”

‘It’s been a blessing’

Others who’ve been part of the church tell stories like that.

Judy was a blend, they said: an approachable man with well-timed wit and a competitive streak at the annual New Year’s Eve game night — yet still the kindly pastor who was there for them in hard times, understanding amid their struggles.

“Wherever you were at in life, he had a word of encouragement and hope that God was still with you and that God could work through anything you were going through,” Serena Gannon said, “…and that you were going to be OK.”

Judy lived those words in his final years, said members of his church.

He first told them of his diagnosis during a Wednesday prayer service. Over the next several years, his messages of hope remained steadfast.

It was only his delivery that changed.

He would eventually stop standing behind the pulpit on stage, preaching instead from the floor level in his wheelchair.

He used notes and an outline of his sermon until he could no longer use his hands. Then, he preached from memory.

He would choose a Bible passage, think about it through the week and compose a sermon in his mind, trusting God to help him remember all he was supposed to share on Sunday morning.

“He had such desire to share the Gospel; I felt that was strengthening him,” Burkett said. “It was a nourishment for him to be able to get up there and talk.”

“Usually, one of the first things to go (with ALS) is your ability to speak,” added Dennis Judy, one of Mark’s brothers. “It’s been a blessing to us.”

He continued to preach to his flock, and it took care of him too.

Members dropped by food each week. A church member took the wheelchair van in for tires; people stopped by to sit with Judy if his wife needed to step out.

Along the way, they took note of what they found to be a powerful example lived out before them.

“Never once did we ever see any anger or bitterness or despair. It was always joy,” said Terrie Sowders. “He rejoiced in everything. Every step of that journey, he rejoiced.”

A month before his death, the pastor said he had never felt the need to chase experiences after his diagnosis — his peace came with living the life he always had.

“I always find that kind of empty,” to go skydiving or mountain-climbing, he said. “My bucket list is to serve the Lord even more, because I don’t have as much time.”

He wasn’t angry, he said, that his life was ending this way. He believed himself to be going to heaven, not because he’d lived a life to earn that reward, but because he believed his long-ago prayer for salvation had been answered.

“It’s made me more appreciative of what Christ did for me on the cross,” he said.

“In a way, God is blessing me, because he’s getting ready soon to take me to heaven. And that’s a good thing, a very good thing.”