For George

Oh how much more could any man desire
Than to know why he draws his every breath
Oh how much more could any soul require
than that the Lord is near him at his death

— from “The Hope of Glory,” by Randy Stonehill

Do not, ever, let them tell you that one person can’t make a difference. If they tell you that, point to Grundy County, Tennessee, and tell them the story of George Bass.

In 1974, about 19 years before I had the privilege of meeting him, George Bass was working for the State of Tennessee but serving as the youth leader at Blakemore United Methodist Church in Nashville. He took the youth to Hinton Rural Life Center in North Carolina, where they did light home repair work for needy families. It was a good trip, and on the last night of it some of the youth remarked that they’d seen similar conditions of poverty on the Cumberland Plateau near the United Methodist assembly grounds in Beersheba Springs. Maybe, the teens wondered, they could start a missions program similar to Hinton’s but based out of Beersheba Springs?

George held his tongue. He knew that starting up a new missions program would be a massive undertaking. He also knew that the people making the suggestion were teenagers, and he figured the idea would be forgotten in a day or two. No need to pour cold water on them in the midst of their mountain-top experience.

Well, the teenagers didn’t forget. And, to George’s credit, he honored their dream. The following summer, 1975, a new missions group was founded: Mountain T.O.P. (Tennessee Outreach Project). George was the founder, and one of only two executive directors in the group’s 41-year history.

But he didn’t do it alone, of course; his wife Rene, and his daughters, Gail and Trish, put the full force of the Bass family unit into building what became an enormous enterprise. Mountain T.O.P. began as, and is still best known as, a youth ministry, bringing in youth groups from multiple denominations and from all over the eastern United States. But Mountain T.O.P. also has an adult ministry, with adults as volunteers (that’s how I got involved), and a college ministry. In the years since George’s retirement, the ministry has added family work weekends which allow families to be in service together, and it has also gotten more intensely involved in economic and community development on the plateau.

It all started with George.

Do not forget love’s Greatest Story
God knows the tears that you have cried
Just set your sights upon the hope of glory
It was for this that Jesus died

I first met George and Gail in 1993. I was an unofficial member of the Tennessee Conference UMC Singles Council, and at the time Mountain T.O.P. was trying to promote one of its Adults In Ministry events as “singles week.” George and Gail came to a singles council meeting to ask for our help in promoting it.

I attended the AIM week that August and was immediately hooked. After the week was over and I had published a big first-person column about it in the Times-Gazette, I drove to Nashville to find the Mountain T.O.P. office and give them a copy.

I joined the Board of Directors a few months later, and served 12 non-consecutive years (three four-year stints, with a year’s break in between), most of it as secretary and a member of the executive committee.

In that time, I came to love George Bass. I loved when he would put his hands on my shoulders and say something encouraging to me.

My eyes just welled up as I typed that last sentence.

I loved his passion for the ministry, both as a big picture and as individual people. Mountain T.O.P. hires a number of college-age kids each summer to run its program, and you could tell how much George loved being around them, teaching them, challenging him.

George Bass loved to tell you there was a spot on the front of your shirt, and then tweak you when you looked down.

I am not a huge sports fanatic, but at one time I owned some sort of cheap Steve McNair jersey, and I remember George challenging me — why would I wear a jersey with someone else’s name on it? What’s the meaning? What’s the purpose? I came up with some feeble answers, but the point of it was challenging me to think.

For every mile of rocky road you climb
There is a jewel added to your crown
For every doubt that drags you down sometimes
There is an answer that will be found

During my third term on the board, we had to make a difficult decision about the future of the ministry which we knew would hurt George personally. I remember looking around the room that night and thinking about how we all felt about George. Some of the people at the table knew him even before Mountain T.O.P. or had even been members of his youth group.

George retired from the ministry a short while later, and I was afraid that I would never be friends with him again.

By that point, Gail had left Mountain T.O.P. and was concentrating on LEAMIS International Ministries, the international missions group she had co-founded with the Rev. Debra Snellen.

A year or two later, I was a member of the LEAMIS board, and we were having some sort of training or planning event for which Gail brought her father in as an expert. He was incredibly qualified in that sort of thing. I think I’d seen him briefly, at a very crowded Mountain T.O.P. event, before that, but I was still pretty nervous about it.

George put his hands on my shoulders and told me that everything had worked out for the best, and that his life had probably been saved by retirement, giving up the stress of running the ministry.

A couple of years ago, I had the big idea to work up a storybook for the 40th anniversary of the Mountain T.O.P. ministry similar to the one we’d put out in 1995 for the 20th anniversary. The Rev. Ed Simmons, who has done an amazing job as the ministry’s second executive director, said that George was interested in the project and wanted to make sure we included some of the stories from the early days while people were still around to tell them. George and Rene took me out to lunch to discuss the project. We had a lovely lunch, and it felt good to talk to George and have it feel like the old days.

After that luncheon, I was supposed to convene a meeting of several people who had agreed to serve on a storybook committee. Life intervened, and that meeting never happened, which was completely my fault. The ministry ended up publishing a devotional book as part of the anniversary celebration, but I felt guilty (and feel 10 times guiltier tonight) for letting the storybook project drop.

George Bass seemed larger than life sometimes. He was a mentor, an inspiration, a leader, a visionary. The impact of the ministry that he and his wife and daughters created goes on — not only in terms of the people helped on the Cumberland Plateau, but in terms of the many volunteers, summer staff members, and even board members whose lives were changed by the program.

Tonight, I was at the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration — officially for work, but I also love the pageantry and people-watching. I was sitting in the press box, in front of a laptop, with the organ stylings of Larry Bright filling the stadium. I think I had been e-mailing some photos to the newspaper, or maybe I was looking up the spelling of someone’s name online, when I opened my e-mail and saw the message from the ministry that George had passed away today in Nashville. I gasped, and my heart broke.

I hesitate to say I was George’s friend, because I let him down so many times. But I am proud to say he was mine.

Carry on, my family of the Light
All those who march unto a different drum
And know that truth will guide you through the night
Until we rest in kingdom come
Do not forget love’s Greatest Story
God knows the tears that you have cried
Just set your sights upon the hope of glory
It was for this that Jesus died

Lyrics courtesy