25-Year-Old Terminally Ill Planter Perseveres

Richard Pope, the pastor of Canvas Church (CC) in Salisbury, and his wife, Payton, are seeing God work in marvelous ways. Ninety-two people attended their one-year anniversary service on April 3. God is saving souls, and people are responding to the Word of God, making professions of faith, and following in obedience in baptism. They’re also serving in the church and sharing their faith. Life is good! But for Richard, earthly life will be short unless God intervenes. Richard, who turned 25 on March 31, has cancer and is terminally ill. As he shares his story, the young man is a perfect picture of a follower of Jesus who suffers yet has the deep bubbling joy of the Holy Spirit.

Care Pastor Steven Dubbs (l) and Executive Pastor Keith Conkle (r) pray for Richard and Payton Pope (photo by Dennis Mullins, CC member).

Gloriously saved following a traumatic childhood, he candidly conveys the events of his young life. “Jesus was not the centerpiece,” he says. “One of my first memories is my mom being beaten (at the hands of his mother’s husband).”

Richard loves his mother, who became a believer later in her life. He says she now shares her testimony of struggling through a cocaine addiction, spousal abuse by a man claiming to be a Christian, and sexual assault. At one point, she left home and joined a carnival looking to escape her horrible circumstances.

As a boy, Richard went to church a few times — once for an Easter egg hunt (“That was pretty cool!” he remembers) and once for an Easter service. The minister, “Pastor John,” preached that Jesus’ love completely covers everything. “That’s the only thing I remembered,” Richard says. He was six or seven years old, possibly younger, and even then, he knew it didn’t seem to add up. “That wasn’t what was happening at home,” he says. He acknowledges, however, that God was already moving in his young life. “I’m really thankful for the seeds that were planted.”

But life got more difficult when people in his mother’s life suggested she take in a relative who was fresh out of prison. That man raped Richard repeatedly for a year. At that point, Richard’s perspective of God was dismal.

“I don’t remember going to church after that, maybe funerals or weddings. I had little to no respect for God or the Bible. I didn’t really care about any of it. Now, theologically, I don’t believe in atheists – I think we’re created in the image of God, so we all in some way believe in a maker, intrinsically, but secular society would have called me an atheist. I wasn’t questioning or an agnostic – there was no God. If there was a God, He couldn’t be good, and there couldn’t be a God who wasn’t good, so he can’t be real,” he explained. It was a dark period in his life. Richard was in and out of mental institutions between the ages of 14 and 15 and attempted suicide several times.

A dude named Harold
God used a coworker at the humble “Jake’s Burgers” to bring Richard to Himself.

“Harold was a dude who literally wouldn’t stop sharing the gospel with me. It was annoying! And we always wound up working together,” he remembers. “I’d be playing Eminem, and he’d be playing Hillsong, Jesus Culture, and all those old youth group bands. Harold loved Steven Curtis Chapman. I didn’t grow up in church, so I didn’t know who he was.

“Finally, I had a day when I had enough. I was mad; I was furious. My stepdad was sick. I was still not mentally okay; I was angry; I was dealing with all of that trauma, pain, disappointment, frustration, and disappointment.

“And then the dude shared the gospel with me (again). The next thing you know, I was going to church with him because he said he’d buy me a scrapple sandwich and afterward we could play ball. I was baptized three Sundays later. It was like instantaneous heart change — like Holy Spirit-driven. My life took a while to catch up. There were still some questionable decisions. I was 15, so it took a while.”

Richard baptizes Dylan Lanonich, a college student at Salisbury University. Over 90 people have come to faith since CC launched in 2021 (photo by Dennis Mullins).

Richard graduated and took an internship at a Wesleyan church, where he met Payton. He was teaching middle school students at the church and was preparing to take a position with a non-denominational church in Salisbury. Payton took over his class, and Richard helped with the transition. Payton laughs as she shares how the two were drawn to each other over Bible questions.

After moving to the church in Salisbury, Richard preached, did poetry readings, hosted Christian art events, and worked with people who were homeless. That’s when God impressed planting a church on his heart.

Planting a church: “It was really tough!”
The church planting challenges seemed overwhelming. “It was tough,” Richard admits. He had a group of people ready to plant with him, but then the Salisbury church began to have some significant difficulties and closed temporarily.

God answered Richard’s plea for help with the plant. “I had performed spoken word at a worship night in Salisbury. Oak Ridge Baptist Church’s (ORBC) worship team was there, and they were the biggest church I knew about. I wasn’t sure what we were doing, how to start, but we had 50 people, we had Bible studies, one person had been baptized, and we had no money.” Richard messaged Brian Moss, the pastor of ORBC, via Facebook, sharing his call to start a church and needing help. He said, ‘You need to get connected to the Baptist world.’’ Moss directed Richard to Eastern Baptist Association (EBA) Interim Director of Missions, Keith Myer. Richard met Myer at Dunkin Donuts several times and shared his story and God’s calling. Myer then connected Richard to Daryl McCready, the pastor of SonRise Church (SC) in Berlin. “Daryl adopted me, and that’s how it happened!” he says. “We joined the Southern Baptist Convention, SEND Network, the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, and the EBA, and SC adopted us. We didn’t know what a sending church was; we were just doing it.”

At 20 years old, Richard received his first cancer diagnosis. His second bout of cancer, which was more aggressive than the first, came in 2019. He would need surgery and more intense chemo. He stepped away from his job of selling copiers for six months but continued his work with the church.

“I wasn’t as efficient or effective,” Richard says. The launch team shrunk. But, Payton added, those who stayed grew in faith. They supported Richard and were more active.

A “church planter wedding”
Richard and Payton married on March 7, 2020. Myer officiated the ceremony, and McCready prayed for them as a couple and for their plant. Even Payton’s vows reflected a commitment to the church. Richard says, “It was interesting — in her vows, she said she felt God had called her to be my wife, that I’m called to plant a church, and that she will help me plant the church God called me to plant. We had a church planter wedding!”

They returned from their honeymoon and continued preparation for the launch. The core team had shrunk to 12, but they committed to starting the church no matter what. Even when COVID-19 hit and everything closed, they persevered.

Moving forward, regardless of a terminal diagnosis
In December 2020, his doctors found another mass during Richard’s one-year scan but believed it was minor. It required surgery and chemo but they assured him all would be well. After surgery, Richard and the launch team were renovating their facility, with Richard rolling around in his wheelchair. A week later, post-op scans showed the cancer was not gone. It had spread throughout his entire body.

Richard met with his team. “I told them that the doctors are saying that I have three to five years based on similar cases,” he remembers. “I’ll still do this if you’ll still do this, but I can’t promise I’ll be here for the long haul.

“We prayed and prayed and sobbed and decided we would do it.”

The church launched on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021.

Richard said, “I preached about Abraham and Isaac. God packed out the sanctuary in two services.” And that was during COVID-19, Richard added. “It wasn’t me or fancy door hangers; it was Jesus.” Richard preached about Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22). “Abraham knew God would provide, and God did provide — not just a sacrifice in place of Isaac, but a sacrifice for all nations till the end of time. Fourteen people got saved the day we launched. Two people signed up for baptisms.

“One thing I remember saying — and it wasn’t planned — was, ‘Most of you know people are praying for me. The doctors are saying I’m only going to be here a little while longer. Three to five years seems long compared to a month, but a year has flown by. If you hear me preach only one time, know that God loves you, and God is love, and love has provided for you.’”

Richard and Payton share with planter candidates at a North American Mission Board SEND Network assessment (photo by Steve Allen, SEND City missionary for New York City).

Richard strives to be open and genuine. “One Sunday morning, I felt sick and told them, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t feel well. I just got sick in the bathroom,’ but then I opened God’s word and shared about taking a leap of faith. I preached a really aggressive message while getting ready to get sick again.” Challenging his congregation, he said, “We think we have to have it all figured out before we share the gospel, but God’s not asking for you to have it all figured out. He’s asking for a leap of faith in faithfulness.” The following week, they had ten visitors because people started sharing their faith.

Pastors often struggle to get people to understand the urgency to accept Christ, live for Him, and share their faith, Richard said. “I don’t have to struggle,” he relates. “They see the urgency.”

Richard is overwhelmed with gratitude and love because of the leaders’ love and support. “Jesus is here in the earthly vessels of the deacons and elders carrying the weight of the church. Sometimes I work 60 hours, sometimes 30, depending on my health.”

He tells story after story of members sharing with friends, relatives, neighbors, and coworkers. “One man, Rob, who hadn’t been to church in 20 years, came in and was saved, then shared with his family and baptized them. He brought a friend named Gina to a small group and has been sharing the gospel and encouraging her. She was baptized in February. Rob has plans to plant a church in 2023.”

Richard says, “It’s kind of miraculous.”

The incredible walk
One of the most significant moments of their brief but powerful history was a 100-mile walk in five days to raise awareness for suicide while sharing the hope of the gospel to Delmarva. The walk had an emphasis everyone could get behind — suicide prevention. Even extreme non-Christians could support what the church was doing, yet it still honored and glorified Christ.

They began an hour south of Salisbury in Virginia, walked through Snow Hill and Berlin, through Delaware in Selbyville, Georgetown, Seaford, Laurel, and Delmar. On the last day, they came to Salisbury, stopping at the church before entering the city. Many Christians from other denominations and non-Christians followed them to the church. Though unplanned, Richard knew they needed to have a short devotional time.

Richard and others from CC lead a 100-mile walk through the Delmarva area to raise awareness of suicide prevention and bring glory to God (photo by Richard).

He remembers, “They walk in, and we sing ‘How He Loves’ (my favorite song), and I come up emotional and hobbling with athletic tape covering my legs. I’m not wearing shoes; I’m like one big blister. I’ve got on bright neon green socks and crazy curly hair everywhere because it’s too hot to wear a hat. I shared Isaiah 40:31, ‘But those who trust in the Lord will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not become weary, they will walk and not faint.’

“I told them, If you’re in a hard dark place waiting for someone to help, the only one who guarantees to come is the Lord. If you don’t know who Jesus is, it’s okay because God knows who you are. In every trial, God’s been there. He loves you. I challenged them to hold on to God.”

They left the church to end the five-day walk in downtown Salisbury, and the support was startling. As they slowly traveled down Route 50, with Richard carrying a giant cross and worship music playing, cars were honking, some driving alongside as escorts, media helicopters were overhead, the police department helped clear the roads, the mayor walked alongside Richard. “It was such a beautiful moment,” Richard said, breaking down while Payton was wiping her eyes. “We walked — nothing fancy, nothing special. In those five days, we engaged with the community and the city more than anything else we had ever done. It was hard but simple,” Richard says.

Richard and Peyton will continue to walk in faith down the road God has chosen for them — at times weak, faint, and broken, but with the joy and knowledge that, “In every trial, God’s been there. He loves you.”

Since Easter 2021, CC has witnessed 115 people come to faith. The church is expecting over 100 in attendance this Easter Sunday. “It’s all God,” Richard says.

Feature photo: BCM/D Executive Michael Crawford (l) and State Director of Evangelism Mark Dooley (r) pray for Richard (photo by Dominic Henry).

Sharon Mager serves as a BCM/D communications specialist and BaptistLife correspondent.