Hometown doctor doubles as an illusionist & evangelist

WHITLEY CITY, Ky. (BP)--When Jerry Burgess performs as a professional illusionist, the tricks are faked but his message is real.

Burgess, a physician and pharmacy owner in Whitley City, Ky., has ministered both as a hometown family doctor and as a gospel illusionist on five continents using his talents to draw people to the message of Christ.

"I sense that I have been called to be a literal fulfillment of Paul's exhortation that we must be all things to all men that by all means we might win some," Burgess said in an interview. "We're using all means."

As head of Divine Design Ministries, Burgess has combined evangelistic preaching with illusions such as levitation, hidden coins and even "nails" through his arm as a means to spread the gospel.

Raised in Whitley City, Burgess said he doesn't remember when he became enthralled with illusions, but one of his older patients does.

"A lady told me when I was just in diapers, I crawled up in her lap and told her I was going to be a 'gician," he said.

As a child, Burgess rarely missed a television magic show and checked out every book available on the subject.

"I always thought magic was the most entertaining art there was," he said.

In 1969, Burgess attended the University of Kentucky in Lexington as a pre-med student. While studying medicine, Burgess met a faculty member who shared his love of illusions. The duo began a mentoring relationship that led Burgess to a second career as a professional.

"Within six months, I was one of the busiest entertainers in Kentucky," he said of bookings at business conventions, fraternity events and school assemblies.

Raised in a Christian home, Burgess recalls growing well-rounded in his faith. His parents were active in Whitley City's First Baptist Church -- his father as deacon; his mother as a Sunday School teacher. Passing on Christian values seemed to come naturally in the Burgess home.

"My parents had a remarkable knack for being able to relate everything to Scriptures," Burgess said. "They used every event in our lives to illustrate some truth out of the Word of God."

Burgess accepted Christ at the age of 7.

As a college student, Burgess soon learned how to meld his newfound skills as an illusionist with evangelism when Campus Crusade for Christ speaker and illusionist Andre Cole performed in Lexington in 1970. Burgess witnessed hundreds convert to Christianity that night, leaving an indelible mark on his plans for life.

"I went home and told my roommate, 'Tonight I found out why God made me a magician,'" he said.

Despite the rigors of medical school, Burgess found time to follow Cole's lead. He first performed a gospel illusions program at White Oak Baptist Church in Hixson, Tenn. in 1970, leading to a steady flow of word-of-mouth invitations.

In 1974, Burgess graduated from medical school. After serving in a residency program in Orlando, Fla., Burgess returned to his hometown of Whitley City in 1975, establishing a family practice that continues today. Burgess and his wife, Janie, have three children: Jerad, 27; Jill, 24; and Julie, 23.

As Burgess refined his ministry style, it began to multiply. Often, Burgess performed a church show on a Saturday night and was asked to stay the following Sunday to preach. Over time, the weekend combination grew into week-long revival services.

In his messages, Burgess usually performs a few tricks culminating in a final performance at the end of the series.

"Over a year's time, I'll preach four messages for every gospel magic program I do. Yet, I'll see five times more people come to Christ during the magic shows than I'll see come during all the preaching services combined," he said.

Burgess points out his act consists only of sleight-of-hand tricks. He encourages his audience to avoid the occult and demonology.

"I have never had a single believer in Christ who has seen the program have a problem with it," he said. "The fruit this ministry has borne has been changed lives and people brought to Christ."

Since 1984, preaching and gospel magic invitations have led Burgess around the world, including venues in Russia, England, Brazil, Kenya and Malaysia.

Since 1990, Burgess has performed on network television in 39 countries on five continents and on national television in the United States 18 times.

Between medical appointments and ministry events, Burgess also has found time to keep up with other gospel illusionists. Since 1983, he has served three times as president of the Fellowship of Christian Magicians. He also is a personal friend of famed magician (and Kentucky native) Lance Burton.

Today, Burgess maintains his Whitley City practice but still thinks about the ministry's future.

"If I had my own way, I would like to go into evangelism fulltime. So far God has made it clear he wants me to be a bivocational evangelist," he said, adding the nature of his current ministry allows him to perform where he is needed, sometimes at no cost.


Burgess can be reached by e-mail at jerryburgess@yahoo.com. Jason Reagan is a newspaper editor and freelance writer in Sweetwater, Tenn. He can be reached at jsreagan@chartertn.net. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: FAITH IS NO ILLUSION.

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