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Surprise bedside graduation honors faithful Pennsylvania man dying of cancer

Dr. Ben Gutierrez kneels at the bedside of graduate Jason McIlwain on Sept. 2.

Sometimes graduation ceremonies are held in stadiums filled with thousands of people waving from the stands. And sometimes really special ones happen in a small bedroom with family and friends huddled close by your side.

Jason McIlwain, 39, graduated from Liberty University on Friday, Sept. 2, receiving his Bachelor of Science degree in religion at his home near Grove City, Pa. Tim Fair, Liberty alumnus and associate pastor of New Life Baptist Church in New Wilmington, Pa., sent the following email to Liberty President Jerry Falwell shortly before noon on that Friday:

“We have a young man that attends our church who is near the end of his life and his battle with cancer. He literally is days away from entering heaven. He is one class away from graduating from Liberty. He wanted nothing more than to graduate Liberty and become a pastor. I want to share with you that this young man has had an incredible ministry because he has been sick with cancer for 12 years. He has gone into remission 10 times! He has given more people hope in our church than anyone else that I know of. Is it possible to [give him credit for his ministry work in lieu of completing the last class]? This would be incredible for him and his family. He is leaving behind two boys, a 10-year-old and 11-year-old. Also, if this is possible, would someone be able to call him and congratulate him on from graduating Liberty University?”

Pastors and family members of graduate Jason McIlwain hold his diploma after the graduation.

Fair was shocked to learn that a member of Liberty’s administration would be handing out the diploma at an official ceremony at McIlwain’s bedside that evening.

“When we found out, it didn’t even take President Jerry Falwell two seconds to decide that we were going to grant him his degree and deliver it in person the same day,” said Dr. Ben Gutierrez, Liberty’s vice provost for academic administration, who made the hour-and-a-half flight in a private plane from Lynchburg, Va., to Grove City, a rural area about an hour north of Pittsburgh.

When Gutierrez arrived at the McIlwain residence about 6 p.m., he was met by a crowd of family members, friends, and church members eagerly waiting to be a part of the surprise. So many family members, in fact, that McIlwain’s bedroom and narrow hallway leading to it was packed shoulder to shoulder. They listened as Gutierrez congratulated McIlwain for graduating Magna Cum Laude (he earned a 4.0 for five straight semesters and never received a grade lower than a B). Then Gutierrez formally conferred his degree before praying with the family and sharing a special time of fellowship together. McIlwain’s church family watched it all live on Facebook.

Terry and Charlotte McIlwain, Jason McIlwain’s parents, share a hug with Dr. Ben Gutierrez.

“Jason had two dreams in life: to graduate from Liberty and to become a pastor at his home church, New Life Baptist,” Fair said.

McIlwain’s second dream came true immediately after the ceremony: senior pastor John Bailey licensed him as a pastor.

When McIlwain’s family expressed their sincerest gratitude to Gutierrez and asked him to send their thanks to President Falwell for making his visit happen, he replied, “I am the one who is honored to be here. What a special person Jason is. We are his Liberty family, and this is what we are about. These are the most precious moments to us, when we can recognize a student’s major accomplishment and bless a family.”

McIlwain went home to be with his Lord two days after he received his degree. His obituary read, “Pastor Jason R. McIlwain,” and noted that he was “known to everyone who knew him as being a faithful follower of the Lord. His passion was sharing the Lord with others, even while facing many difficulties.”

“When I first heard Jason’s story, I was impressed by how he had already ministered to so many people with his display of faith and courage despite his terminal condition,” said President Jerry Falwell. “He truly exemplified what it means to be a Champion for Christ.”

Gutierrez has asked for continued prayers for the McIlwain family. The family is establishing a trust fund for Jason’s sons. Memorial contributions may be made to First National Bank, and mailed to 3200 Wilmington Road, New Castle, PA 16105, to the attention of Margaret.

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