After a hard day of work, Jess Kerley had plopped down on the couch with his wife Anne to watch a movie in their home outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Kerley thought about little more than unwinding until a line from the film struck him deeply: “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really: Get busy living, or get busy dying.” Kerley had recently survived a rare form of leukemia, upending his expectations for life and sending him on a journey for renewed purpose. He had always “kept busy,” but now he asked himself, “To what purpose?”
Through missionary friends, the Kerleys learned to love the mission field but weren’t sure what it meant for them personally. Jess had labored to build a successful HVAC company with plans to sell it and fund an early retirement. Anne, a former stay-at-home mom, started working outside the house to increase their savings. But during this season, a friend issued a challenge, suggesting they should equip missionaries carrying the gospel to remote locations worldwide. And eventually, they did.
In 2007 the couple kept a small stockpile of useful materials on hand to ship out to people in the field: Messenger audio Bibles, DVDs of the JESUS film, solar-powered battery packs, and water filtration devices. Jess and Anne even had the chance to carry devices into Peru and Panama themselves—as they met people transformed by the gospel, they saw firsthand the effects of their supportive role.
But then in 2019, several years into retirement, Kerley started feeling sick when he ate. Also concerned about a rapid weight loss, he went to the hospital, where a scan revealed that cancer had returned, this time in his colon. After undergoing surgery to remove as much of the cancer as possible, he began seeing a counselor for help processing the events mentally and emotionally. He felt frustrated that the disease had derailed his plans to serve God in a greater way. The therapist diagnosed him with one additional malady: “workaholism.”
The disease had derailed his plans to serve God in a greater way.
Approved for a trial drug, Kerley now spends hours each day tending to his health and little else. It’s painful to sit still and wait, but in the quiet moments, he’s reminded of God’s faithfulness—like the time he was able to loan his aging father-in-law a Messenger. The 90-year-old had lost his sight and with it, the joy of reading Scripture, and the audio Bible helped him get into the Word again. Giving the device was a simple act, but one that carried eternal weight.
As he regains strength, Kerley looks forward to being fully active again. And though he’s unable to travel the way he wants to, he’s still sending supplies into the field. For now, his mission is to get busy living—this time letting God do the work inside him.
Photography by Ben Rollins
Editor’s note: In late 2020, Jess Kerley received an encouraging scan and was declared cancer free. However, it had unknowingly spread to his pancreas. On Jan. 6, 2021, Kerley went to be with the Lord. He continued to serve the Lord and love others until his final day.