Joe McKeever, an artist-minister, a real draw at SBC

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--In most years, messengers to annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention find themselves drawn to exhibit areas by LifeWay Christian Store bargains, opportunities to spot familiar faces from years gone by and information from Baptist entities and church-related vendors.

But the exhibit hall at this year's SBC meeting June 21-22 in Nashville, Tenn., included yet another kind of draw by Southern Baptist artist Joe McKeever who drew numerous caricatures of messengers and their families as part of the Baptist Press exhibit for the SBC Executive Committee.

McKeever, director of missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans, draws cartoons regularly featured in Baptist Press, state Baptist newspapers and a variety of other church-related and secular publications.

The lines were constant for a chance to sit in a chair facing McKeever across a small table where he used broad-tipped black markers to sketch quick portraits in a matter of minutes -- one right after another.

"So I can sit here for hours and do this, I've been walking on the levy by the Mississippi River every morning for 45 minutes during my prayer time holding a water bottle in one hand and flexing my other hand like this," said McKeever, alternately making a fist and then spreading his fingers in spider-like fashion.

As McKeever quickly produced one personal portrait after another, his subjects responded with smiles and delight.

"Yeah, it's me," said 3-year-old Will Upchurch, whose father, Terry, is pastor of Washington Baptist Church in Natchez, Miss.

Melissa Upchurch, Will's mother, smiled as she gazed at the portrait, commenting, "I love it. It's beautiful. It looks just like him."

During studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Terry Upchurch attended First Baptist Church in Kenner, La., where McKeever was pastor from 1990 to 2004 and utilized artistry in a variety of ways.

"I remember him drawing on overhead cells on Wednesday nights at the church," Upchurch recalled. "Those were the best Bible studies."

Stewart McCarter, pastor of the Southside Baptist Church in Suffolk, Va., and his wife, Janice, and children Kameron, Ian and Savannah, each waited patiently as McKeever drew each in turn.

"They're great, they're perfect," Stewart McCarter said of the drawings. "We may use mine for publication in our church newsletter next to my regular column."

Janice McCarter said she plans on framing all five sketches. "These are exceptionally well-done, and it took years off me," she said with a grin.

McKeever said he became interested in drawing as a preschooler when his mother encouraged him to draw.

Decades later, when serving as pastor of First Baptist Church in Columbus, Miss., members of the Baptist Student Union from the Mississippi University for Women asked McKeever to help them in a fundraising event by sketching people for $1 per drawing in one minute.

In the years following, McKeever discovered his drawings were useful in a variety of other ministry-related activities, such as revivals.

"Before each [revival] service begins and after the services conclude, I draw people who attend," McKeever said. The person sketched keeps the original drawing after a copy is made for posting on a wall in the fellowship hall, he explained.

"Often, by the time the week is over, we'll have filled up a wall with a couple hundred of them," McKeever noted. "People will bring their family members and friends to the revival for me to draw."

His use of drawings during revival services drew praise from Al Hood, director of missions for the Winston County Baptist Association in Double Springs, Ala., where McKeever grew up.

"When I first moved to Double Springs in 2000, Joe was conducting a revival at Meek Baptist Church," Hood said. "The parents were excited about the children's pictures being posted. They pretty well had a packed house every night."

McKeever uses the drawings as witnessing tools in other contexts, such as fall festivals, Vacation Bible Schools and even visits to shopping malls where he seats himself informally at a table in the food court with drawing tools in hand.

As mall customers notice his quick artistry and ask for their own portraits, McKeever sketches on a high-quality slick piece of white paper -- blank on one side for the drawing but with the plan of salvation on the other.

"Want to know Jesus personally and live forever? You can," implores his innovative evangelistic tract.

McKeever's ties to the Winston County area continue to the present. His mother, who attends a local Freewill Baptist church, carefully clips his many cartoons published regularly by the Daily Mountain Eagle, a newspaper based in nearby Jasper.

"My wife [Margaret] says I'm the oldest person in the world whose mother still puts his artwork on the refrigerator," McKeever said.

The website www.joemckeever.com provides access to an extensive variety of McKeever's cartoons, other drawings and writings.


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