Since losing his wife to cancer last year, pastor, gospel artist and worship leader Marvin Sapp is rediscovering what praising God really means
When you’re a pastor who’s expected to deliver the “good news” every Sunday, what do you do when sorrow enters your life? For Marvin Sapp, a pastor, best-selling gospel artist and worship leader who’s been through a year of personal pain, hope has come through living what he preaches.
“It’s one thing to get up and encourage others with your messages, and it’s another to live off what you’ve taught,” Sapp says. “As preachers, a lot of time we study to preach, but some of us study to live. When the rubber met the road in my life, I was glad I had stuff for what God knew we were going to endure.”
On Sept. 9, 2010, Sapp’s wife of 18 years—MaLinda—lost her battle with colon cancer. Suddenly Sapp the pastor, gospel artist and worship leader was also a single dad and had to carry on, not only with his ministry but also with raising his family of three alone.
MaLinda had been a presence in his life for virtually his entire life—ever since the two met in third grade. She served alongside him at Lighthouse Full Life Center Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., where she was a pastoral staff member and professional counselor.
“I couldn’t have found anyone better,” Sapp says. “MaLinda was a partner in ministry in every aspect, in every way.”
Her “fingerprint” is evident, he says, throughout the Lighthouse church they pastored together. She was a savvy businesswoman who was able to negotiate contracts with major corporations and serve on community boards. She was a preacher who delivered the Word. Most of all, she was a wife and mother to the couple’s children: Marvin II, Mikaila and Madisson.
“She had the ability to multitask like nobody I’ve ever seen,” Sapp observes. “She was still a homebody. Her passion was to make sure her husband was pleased. Whenever I was home, she cooked dinner. She didn’t want a housekeeper. She wanted to keep her own house clean.”
When Sapp was honored in January by the gospel music industry—named Artist of the Year at the 26th annual Stellar Awards ceremony—he found the experience that normally would have been a time of rejoicing to be “bittersweet” instead.
“It was bittersweet because the person who stood with me 18 to 20 years was not there,” he says. “This was the first major event I did without my wife. It was difficult.”
Determined to Keep It Moving
Sapp describes his late wife as his personal hero, saying that after her final prognosis was delivered “she never complained; she was at peace.” During her final weeks, MaLinda met with the church board so she could “pour [herself] into them,” Sapp says. Her concern was not for herself but for the church, and for her family, he notes.
“Not one time did I hear her do any complaining or say anything other than, ‘Make sure you take care of Marvin,’” he says. “Not one time did she say, ‘Pray for me.’ She was at real peace with where she was. She didn’t want us to worry.”
The Sapps founded the church in 2003 with 24 people in a restaurant facility Sapp still owns, called Praise Place. Today the church has 1,500 members meeting at three locations—one in Los Angeles and two in Michigan. Centered on ministering to the “holistic” person, the church focuses both on spiritual needs and also on development of life skills and tutorial programs.
“My passion is inner-city ministry,” Sapp says. “I want to see people grow and become the best that they possibly can.”
Before her prognosis, MaLinda had been working on gathering funds for a new facility that would focus on the performing arts. Sapp says plans for the new building are still moving ahead. Losing MaLinda could have been a devastating blow to the thriving ministry and congregation, but Sapp says he’s found confidence and comfort in a motto the couple held on to for years—“Keep it moving.”
“This is one of the last things she said, ‘Keep it moving’,” he says. “That’s what we’re determined to do.”
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