The day Rick Busby graduated with a doctorate in theology from Southern Bible Institute and Seminary in Thomson in 2002, he needed help to get onto the platform to receive his degree.
"That is when it all started," said the Rev. Busby, whose symptoms appear to be those of multiple sclerosis, a neurological disorder as debilitating as it is difficult to diagnose.
Known as much for his preaching as his tenor voice, he will be a guest speaker and will perform during homecoming festivities starting at 11 a.m. Sunday at McBean Baptist Church in Waynesboro, Ga. Dinner will be served. Promise Land also will perform.
The Rev. Busby, a Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame member, receives 100 to 150 letters a month from people from all over the country, Canada and even Iraq, ever since gospel-music publications began telling his story.
A few of the letter writers have their own tales on dealing with MS. They tell of waiting two or three years before MRIs revealed the tell-tale lesions on the brain confirming the disease. Without them or the presence of antibodies in the spinal fluid, doctors cannot be sure of a diagnosis and will not give medicines specific to MS because side effects could be worse than the illness.
"It is a crazy disease because it hides," the Rev. Busby said.
Doctors detected a cyst in his brain and thought for a while that might be the trouble, but they have since ruled it out. They later attributed his symptoms to a mental breakdown until a psychiatrist evaluated him and pronounced him sane.
The memory of the psychiatric episode makes the Busbys laugh today.
"Hey, if I am having a nervous breakdown, let me know about it. It would be easy to have a nervous breakdown in the world we live in today. I was all for (being called 'crazy'), wasn't I, honey?" he said to his wife, Cyndi.
"Anything just to find out what was wrong," she said.
The Rev. Busby has MRIs every six months to check for lesions, but so far, the scans have been clear. He had a spinal tap in December, but results were negative. Doctors can only treat his symptoms for now, though he has eyes so dry his corneas are damaged and seizures so severe he has four protruding discs, one in his neck and three along his spine, as a result.
Speech problems, including slurring words and stuttering, also can surface. Symptoms can be eased with medication, but the disease comes and goes, manifesting with varying intensity and in many ways, including memory loss, insomnia, sensitivity to heat or cold, pain, fatigue, depression or unsteadiness.
When one symptom gets worse, all the other symptoms get worse at the same time, said Mrs. Busby, who cares for her husband full time. After a flare-up, he may be better for one to three weeks.
After a diagnosis is made and he is able to start MS medications, he will be able to do what he wants to do with his life, she said.
The unpredictability of his illness has made it difficult for him to work, and medical expenses have climbed to more than $100,000. The Busbys' church, Second Baptist in Thomson, has established a trust fund to assist them. The Rev. Busby has had to sell some things, such as their van
"But I still have my family, and I still have a roof over my head, and I thank God for that. I still haven't lost my hope," he said. "I still believe God is going to use me."
He spends much of his time reading inspirational books and Scripture and praying in their Martinez home.
"Whenever I do get the opportunity to preach again, I have a bag full of sermons," said the Rev. Busby, who has also started writing songs with his wife.
The couple have collaborated on a book, Shattered Lives, Broken Hearts, Restored. They are negotiating with publishers now, and after the book is released, they want to use it to conduct workshops, he said.
The book grew out of their experiences. He was ordained in 1981 as a Southern Baptist minister and married the next year. About three years into the marriage, he said, his wife announced she did not want to be a pastor's wife, had been unfaithful and was leaving. She took their 2-year-old son, Jonathan, with her.
Devastated, the Rev. Busby left the ministry. About a year later, he was asked to be a substitute singer with The Cathedrals and later with The Florida Boys. In 1986, The Florida Boys had three No. 1 hits and five top 10 songs with the Rev. Busby as first tenor. That year and the next, the singers were awarded song of the year in the Fan Awards of Singing News magazine. He was nominated as favorite newcomer for 1986 and for favorite first tenor that year and every year through 1990. In 1987, he was in the running for a Dove Award as male vocalist of the year.
He joined Heaven Bound in 1988, and the group earned two No. 1 songs and four top 10 singles.
Heaven Bound came to Augusta to perform in 1989, and the Rev. Busby was introduced to Cyndi Williford, a widow with a young son, Brandon. Her husband, sheriff's Deputy Bruce Williford, had been killed in the line of duty in 1987.
The couple wed in 1990, and The Rev. Busby's son, Jonathan, came to live with them in 1993. The Rev. Busby decided to give up touring to spend more time with his family. He served as associate pastor and minister of music at Second Baptist in Thomson from 1997 to 1999 and at Westport Baptist Church in Denver, N.C., from 1999 to 2000.
He was inducted into the music hall of fame in 1999. He started a solo career in 2000, traveling as an evangelist throughout the country. Mrs. Busby, an alto, started singing with him in 2003.
"I have had people say God can heal you if you will only believe. I believe God can heal me, and I know that God has all the power to heal," he said.
Still, like Moses, who was a stutterer, and Paul, who complained about a thorn in his side, it may not be God's will to heal him, the Rev. Busby said. He might not be what he once was, but that is not what matters most to him now, he said.
"I just want people to be able to see Christ in my life," he said.
For more information, call the Busbys at 650-9172 or visit their Web site, www.rickandcyndibusby.com.
For more information about McBean's homecoming, call 554-9653.
Who: Rick and Cyndi Busby, evangelists
Where: McBean Baptist Church, 4457 Georgia Highway 56, Waynesboro
When: 11 a.m. Sunday