Drawn from Experience

From the Times-Picayune:

Saturday, August 07, 2004

By Bruce Nolan

Staff writer

Give the Rev. Joe McKeever a few idle minutes, especially in a public place — ideally, a restaurant after he’s placed his order — and out come his black felt-tipped pen and a sheet of his glossy sketch paper. In a few strokes — voila! — the waiter. Or the two kids with Grandma in the next booth.

It’s usually an ice-breaker.

In Baton Rouge once, McKeever sketched a caricature of his waiter on a paper tablecloth that so engaged the young man he called over the rest of the staff to be done, one by one.

“When it was over, they bought me dinner,” McKeever said.

In the bottom corner of each sketch, McKeever substitutes “JoeMcKeever.com” in the space where a signature might go.

His Web site notes that McKeever, 64, is a Southern Baptist preacher with pastoral experience leading churches in three states since the late 1960s.

A link there contains a little message on getting to know Jesus Christ.

McKeever can preach and write. But another of his tools is the sketch pad.

He does cartoons, too, for Baptist papers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Illinois, and for secular dailies in Alabama and North Carolina.

Eliciting chuckles

His work consists of gentle digs at familiar figures in church life: overworked or self-important pastors, sleepy worshippers, stern deacons.

Occasionally he goes after politicians. But he never raises a welt.

“A lot of my stuff is benign, and intentionally so,” he said recently. “I’m not a confrontational kind of guy.”

Like other cartoonists, McKeever concentrates on simplicity and irony.

“A sermon may develop several ideas at the same time. A good cartoon has just one idea. Just one,” he said.

And irony helps.

So it is that a McKeever preacher marooned alone on a desert island begins to preach into empty air, confident that a professional church fund-raiser will soon appear.

Or a man lies awake at night “wondering how I can thank the Lord — other than actually obeying him.”

Or a politician pledges never to let religion dictate his convictions because “I don’t have either one.”

The cartoons, not surprisingly, reflect a conservative Southern Baptist world view on big cultural matters, and on smaller matters, an insider’s affection for church life and its people.

So it is that another of McKeever’s marooned pastors is told his prayer is answered: He got a church matched to his ability.

In truth, though, “I love pastors,” said McKeever, who heads the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans — a consortium of Baptist churches that support each other and coordinate their mission work.

McKeever pastored churches in Paradis; Columbus, Miss.; and Charlotte, N.C., before returning to take over the pulpit of First Baptist Church of Kenner from 1990 until earlier this year.

He is the son of a West Virginia coal miner, reared in Alabama, who took his seminary training at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

Something of a wag, he slipped into an empty classroom one day and chalked a caricature of the seminary professor and an illustration of the theological lesson the professor had been teaching the previous day.

The professor actually liked it; the roof did not fall in, and McKeever was encouraged.

Light ribbing

Things did not go quite so well when he received an invoice billing him for a single dollar from the seminary business office, he said.

McKeever paid the buck and wrote an old Irish blessing on the back of the returned invoice: “May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.”

Seminary officials didn’t know exactly what McKeever was driving at, but sensed it was not entirely complimentary. “I had to write letters of apology all around,” he said.

But McKeever cartoons never attack; their message is more knowing than biting.

When the Southern Baptist Convention was bitterly divided by a struggle between conservatives and moderates in the 1970s and 1980s, McKeever’s cartoons carried neither side’s banner.

“Almost never will I offend anyone,” he said. “If you offend someone, you lose them. I want to win them.”

Which is why McKeever likes to draw in public places, he said.

Occasionally, he used to drop by the food court in some busy mall, take out marker and pad, and offer to do quick sketches.

McKeever talks easily to strangers. The sketches led to introductions, the introductions led to brief conversations; sometimes the conversations included little moments when McKeever felt like he could offer some Christian witness.

“I like to do that,” he said.