For a half-century, the Rev. John Hedgepeth has dedicated his life to a single endeavor: preaching the Gospel to the congregation of Northwood Temple Church in north Fayetteville.
In 1968, when he first commenced on this long tenure at the church off Ramsey Street, membership was approximately 130 people. Today, it's a mega-church, with membership of more than 4,600.
"Every time he preaches, I get a different message," said 16-year-old Bryann Antle, whose family have been church members for nearly a decade. "Every time I come here, I feel like I needed to hear that message. Like, it effects me."
Pastor John, she calls him.
"He's like my grandpa," she said sweetly. "Every time I see him, I hug him."
On Sunday evening, under a decorative gala bunting that hung over the church's gymnasium floor, a crowd of about 550 people paid tribute to the eastern North Carolina-born Hedgepeth during a 50th pastoral anniversary banquet. Earlier Sunday, only one service was held at the church rather than the customary two to celebrate the minister's milestone.
"I never expect something like this. This is just colossal," he said as the guests started to make their way through the buffet lines. "To have my friends right here and these people coming - it just means everything."
Don't get the wrong impression of the occasion. This was no slap on the back before Hedgepeth decides to make it official, ending an overall 55-year career serving God.
Retirement was not in the air.
"No. This is just a celebration of 50 years so far. Unless they say, 'Retire me," Hedgepeth quipped.
He said he had no idea when he may retire, before quickly adding, "Not until Jesus comes."
Presiding Bishop Doug Beacham of the International Pentecostal Holiness Church, North Carolina Conference, served as the keynote speaker. Before the program got underway, Beacham called Hedgepeth one of the premier pastors in the entire denomination.
"He loves people," he said. "He cares for his flock. He's a hands-on shepherd with his flock."
Faye Starling, who is 71, said she and family members have been attending Northwood Temple for 10 to 12 years. She has yet to join the church, but she keeps coming back for the blessed message.
"That's unusual for a preacher to stay that long at one church," Starling said. "I just love this preacher and the way he preaches, and he don't hold back. He tells it like it is."
Hedgepeth said he never intended to stay for more than two years, which was the assignment when the N.C. Conference appointment him to the church in August 1968. Then, he added, it ended up being "a good while."
"You go wherever the Lord wants you to go," he said. "And the Lord says, 'This is the land that I give you and put you, and you go and occupy it until I come.' "
Before the assignment at Northwood Temple, Hedgepeth pastored in Whiteville and in the Princeton-Goldsboro area. He began preaching 1963, the same year he married Fay, his wife of 55 years. She's originally from Rockingham, at the opposite end of the state on U.S. 1 from her husband's native Henderson.
Early in their life together, she taught school at Fort Bragg and John Hedgepeth taught at Terry Sanford High School.
During the celebration dinner, the two sat side by side, up front, by the podium. As the first lady of the church, Fay Hedgepeth, too, was being recognized for 50 years of service. She has supported her husband all these years, and the two have touched so many lives as the years have passed.
"You know, you just work and you don't think about the years, and then you realize it has been 50 years," she said.
Aong with their three children and half-dozen grandchildren, the Hedgepeths have their extended church family. "There's no many pastors where the pastor married a couple, dedicated their children, married their children and dedicated their children," said Allen Lee, the 33-year-old technical director for the church.
"I'm one of them."
Though God and Fay both have a tight connection to the pastor's heart and soul, she said she had no idea when her husband might step down from the pulpit.
"He's a person who has to have a lot to do," she said. "It's in him so much."
Staff writer Michael Futch can be reached at email@example.com or (910) 486-3529.