NEW ORLEANS — Kay Bennett remembers the day Joe McKeever visited a group of girls in the Up 2 Hope summer program at Baptist Friendship House in New Orleans where she serves as director.
“Joe is a person who makes everyone feel comfortable around him — even a group of girls, (most of whom) came from an abusive background,” Bennett said. “He came in, sat down with the girls, pulled out his pen and sketch pad and began to sketch the girls. One by one, he sat there and drew a caricature of each of the girls.”
But it wasn’t just the sketches that caught Bennett’s attention. It was the way McKeever got to know each of the 30 girls individually, Bennett said.
“He was present with them, never judging, only encouraging and lifting them up. He brought smiles to every one of their faces.
“He was Jesus at the well with the Samaritan women that day,” Bennett said. “He is a man God has uniquely gifted to brighten peoples’ lives with his talent and to share Jesus’ love.”
This is a story one will hear over and over and over again about McKeever, who retired as director of missions (DOM) for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans (BAGNO) April 30.
Born near Nauvoo, Ala., in 1940, McKeever spent his young adult years in Birmingham and experienced the coal fields of West Virginia as a child. He also has lived in Mississippi, North Carolina and Louisiana, specifically New Orleans, twice now.
The fourth of six children, McKeever was called to the ministry at West End Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1961. He earned master of theology and doctor of ministry degrees from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 1967 and 1973. He and his wife Margaret have three children and eight grandchildren.
Before accepting the DOM position in New Orleans five years ago, McKeever served 14 years as pastor of First Baptist Church in Kenner, La. He previously served 12 years as pastor of First Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. He also served churches in Mississippi and near New Orleans. In Alabama, he served as pastor of Unity Baptist Church in Kimberly before he headed to seminary in the 1960s.
While most people might identify McKeever with his famous caricatures, he gained a different kind of prominence after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“I watched him provide a place for pastors, many of whom traveled long distances, to gather in the weeks and months that followed Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in New Orleans,” said Richard Leach, team leader of the North American Mission Board’s servant/ministry evangelism team.
“He is calming. Because of his character, walk with the Lord and ability to draw, he is the right man for stressful times,” Leach said. “I have observed how God uses his drawing to relieve stress and tension through seeing an element of humor in difficult situations.
“His response to the needs of pastors made it very clear why God had called him to be the director of missions for BAGNO,” Leach said.
McKeever said it was Katrina that clarified his calling to the association in New Orleans.
Though not sure why he agreed to a five-year stint as DOM at first, he said when the levees began to breach on that August day, his heart knew the answer. Esther 4:14 came to mind: “And who knoweth whether thou are come to the Kingdom for such a time as this?”
“After Katrina, they needed a pastor,” McKeever said of the 100 or so pastors he serves in the association. “(They needed) somebody who knew them and loved them, and I knew them and loved them.”
Since then, he has coordinated relief efforts and worked to build an emotional and spiritual foundation upon which the association’s scattered pastors could rebuild their churches.
In the storm’s immediate aftermath, the blog he has maintained at www.joemckeever.com since 2003 became an invaluable one-stop news source for en route volunteers and displaced congregations. That blog also has helped untold followers along their own faith journeys.
James “Bo” Brown, pastor of Community Baptist Church in Maylene, Ala., said a friend sent him a devotional written by McKeever “many years ago … and here would begin a relationship, one-sided for a while, that would shape this young minister’s life.”
“I would read every word, gaining affirmation or conviction, finding in each piece biblical truths that I desperately desired,” Brown said. “I found no puffed theology but rather words that were real, speaking of life and experiences common to us all.
“The words impacted me and still do,” he said. “I am honored to now be able to call Joe not only my mentor but my friend as well.”
Another friend of McKeever is Rick Lance, executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, who considers McKeever “a renaissance leader among Southern Baptists.”
“Since I first became acquainted with him more than three decades ago, I have been impressed with his artistic abilities, his winsome spirit and his gifts in pastoral ministry and as a communicator of the gospel,” Lance said. “Joe is the personification of Romans 12:1–2. He has devoted his total self to serving the Lord, with every talent and gift God has provided him.”
Lance described McKeever as “a contemporary Barnabas for those of us who serve alongside him as ministers and church leaders.”
“He is more than a fellow laborer; Joe is a friend who stands with you in a time of need,” Lance said.
Mickey Caison, who leads the adult volunteer mobilization department at NAMB and has spent many weeks in the New Orleans area post-Katrina, also spoke highly of McKeever.
“Joe is a person with a very compassionate heart. He provided very strong leadership in the aftermath and recovery from Hurricane Katrina,” Caison said. “He began immediately to gather the pastors and minister to them. His working with the pastors helped sustain and develop relationships within the association and with partners all over the nation.”
In true McKeever fashion, he explains his “calling” to sketch:
“When I was 5 years old, Mom gave me and my little sister Carolyn pencil and paper and put us at the kitchen table and told us to draw,” McKeever said. “I discovered I loved to draw. The next year in the first grade, the rest of the class would gather around and watch me draw. To this day, I can outdraw any group of first-graders you’ve ever met.”