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His life in church music reaps grateful words, handshakes, hugs

RICHARDSON, Texas (BP)–It takes him awhile to make it through the lobby into the church auditorium — one would expect as much for someone not so far from 90 years old.
However, it is not age that slows Genter Stephens down on this Sunday evening. It is the people who stop him every several steps to offer a hug or handshake, to put an arm around his shoulders, to remember.
“This man was my minister of youth,” one man says to another as they stand with Stephens in the lobby of First Baptist Church, Richardson, Texas, just prior to the start of a session of the Southern Baptist Church Music Conference in mid-June.
“Mine, too,” the second man answers, although it is obvious the two men are years apart in age. But that makes no difference. Stephens’ ministry has stretched across the generations — and across the spectrum of Southern Baptist life.
A recounting of his career includes teaching stints at two Tennessee Baptist colleges, while also serving as the first music secretary for the Tennessee Baptist Convention. Later, Stephens traveled to Louisiana, where he taught at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Along the way, he served churches — in full-time, part-time and interim stints. In Louisiana, he was minister of music in several churches and took on youth ministry duties as well in some of those.
Even as a senior adult, Stephens served in such capacities. In fact, he was minister of music and youth at First Baptist Church, Belle Chasse, La., when he retired from the seminary in the late 1970s and traveled to El Paso, Texas, to work on production of a Spanish version of the Baptist hymnal. Later, he would return to Louisiana, serving other churches during his “retirement” years.
“Not only was he my minister of youth when I was in high school, but when I was in seminary, he and I served together on a church staff,” the younger man says as the conversation continues in the church lobby. “That was a great experience for me.”
Eventually, however, age caught up with Stephens — he suffered a stroke in 1993 that robbed him of his voice. Then, in 1994, his wife, Dorothy, died, leaving him without a mate for the first time in 62 years.
Stephens is thinner now than in the past. His voice remains stilled. He lives with his daughter, Lydia, who guides him through the lobby of the Texas church on this Father’s Day evening.
They are almost at the door of the auditorium when yet another former student approaches. Stephens turns and recognizes the face. A smile explodes across his face and he wraps his arms around the young man.
He then pulls back and grips the friend’s hand. He stares and pats his hand on the chest of his friend, communicating with touch because words are not possible. His grip is still strong — as strong as his voice once was, as sure as his direction always was to his choirs and students.
Another friend approaches. He wants a photograph with his former teacher. The two move to the side of the lobby, where they stand and smile for the record.
Then, the service is about to start. Stephens is led to a pew near the front. He needs easy access to the stage. Tonight, he will receive the annual Hines Sims Award from the conference for his contributions to the field of church music. The award is named for longtime music leader Hines Sims, who was editor of an earlier version of the Baptist Hymnal and who died earlier this spring.
Tonight, a friend of Stephens is presenting the annual church music award — Rob Hewell, director of church music ministries for Arkansas Baptists.
“Genter is a friend,” Hewell says after citing details of Stephens’ music work. “Genter is a teacher. He is an encourager. He is a servant. Genter has always been serious about his craft as a musician and serious about his commitment to the Lord and to ministering through music.”
Stephens is called to the stage, where Hewell tells him, “Genter, we want you to know we love you and appreciate all that you have done to make music ministry what it is for all of us.”
And then the plaque is presented, and members of the conference audience are standing and applauding. Stephens stands before them, looking at the plaque, then at those in the pews, listening, unable to speak except through his tears — and the tears come. He waves and cries — and his daughter steps back a few feet to allow him this moment, his moment.
The moment passes — and Stephens is led back to his seat. He sits for the rest of the service as he did for the earlier part — listening to the musical presentations, looking at the conference hymn sheets, standing with others as they join in song.
It is in one of these moments that a former student turns and catches Stephens’ eye from a few pews away.
There is recognition on Stephens’ face. He smiles — and all the music he can no longer lead or write or direct or sing is there, in his eyes, on his face, in his smile.

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  • Lacy Thompson