My wife and I arrived on the campus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in late June of 1964. A couple of days later, after we set up the apartment at 4412-C Seminary Place, Margaret’s mother arrived with our one-year-old son Neil and our little English Ford automobile. We were in our third year of marriage and I was moving my bride nearly 400 miles away from her mama and daddy.
Our marriage got better immediately. (smiley-face here)
We had chosen this seminary from the other five SBC schools rather easily, and it had nothing to do with reputation. New Orleans is a mission field. A rather exotic one, I thought. Historic, too. So, that was it. We would go where we could make a difference for the Lord’s sake.
We lived on campus the first year. Margaret took a job at the campus Baptist Book Store and I worked afternoons for the Louisiana Coca-Cola Bottling Company. A few times that fall, student pastors invited me to preach for their churches. (I had pastored little Unity Baptist Church, Kimberly, Alabama, for 14 months, and served in an unpaid staff position at Central Baptist in Tarrant for 6 months before coming to seminary. That was the sum total of my pastoral experience.)
We joined Pontchartrain Baptist Church on Robert E. Lee Boulevard in New Orleans where classmate Vaughan Pruitt pastored. Soon he had me teaching a young couples class and leading worship music. (To this day, my heart goes out to small churches that have to put up with such inept leadership!)
That first summer, I took classes on missions with Dr. Malcolm Tolbert and Old Testament with Dr. George Harrison and loved both. Because I’d not done my best in college, with grades hardly more than average, I threw myself into seminary studies to make the most of this. Dr. Harrison and I bonded and remain great friends to this day. (He’s in his 80s now, living in the Mobile, Alabama area. I had him guest-preach/teach in every church I pastored except one. I am eternally grateful to the Lord for giving me such a friend and mentor.)
In April of 1965, a church 25 miles west of New Orleans called me as pastor. (Talk about faith!) The Paradis Baptist Church in St. Charles Parish sat on Alligator Bayou in buildings hauled out there 20 years earlier at the end of World War Two. They ran 40 in attendance. Since the church had an apartment in back, we moved in and lived on the field. We stayed for the duration of our seminary years, some two-and-a-half years.
Seminary classes were four days a week, leaving long weekends for students to travel from their church fields. (These days, Sunday is the only day each week no classes are held in almost any seminary. Things have changed mightily.)
Well, that’s how it happened that one morning, driving to class, I thought of an idea for a cartoon.
Something in the previous day’s lecture on Systematic Theology (Professor Robert Soileau) triggered a funny remark and I thought of a way to cartoon it.
I slipped into the room before class and sketched it on the blackboard, then left hurriedly. Mostly, I was concerned with how the professor would take it.
Later, I entered with the rest of the class and was pleased to see them enjoying the drawing. When Professor Soileau entered, the room became deathly quiet. Since I had caricatured him, no one knew how he would take it.
He enjoyed it more than anyone.
And I was off.
Margaret will tell you all Joe needs is a little encouragement, then get out of his way.
Next day, another cartoon. And another after that.
Before long, I allowed myself to be caught at the blackboard.
Soon the student newspaper–I’ve forgotten how often it came out–asked me to give them a drawing each issue.
That’s when it occurred to me that the St. Charles Herald, our weekly tabloid-sized newspaper for my church field, might consider running a cartoon. They were already printing my devotional in each edition. (I had learned from the student paper that classmate Bob Barker was doing a devotional for his town’s paper. So, I sat at my manual typewriter in the church office at Paradis and wrote out three pieces. My note to the editor said, “I love your paper. It could use some spiritual pieces from various ministers. I’m submitting three.” I never heard from him, but he ran them. So, I sent him more.) When he added my cartoon alongside the devotional, the newspaper was then giving me a full one-fourth of a page in each edition. And the fun part is it wasn’t costing the church a dime.
You wonder what those cartoons looked like. They were so amateurish, it’s not even funny. One of our members clipped them out and saved them in a scrapbook which is still around here somewhere.
Perhaps that’s one reason my little church began growing. We were a block off U.S. 90 and basically invisible. But the features in our little paper alerted local people to the presence of a Baptist church in Paradis (in addition to the larger one in nearby Luling). Soon, we were having visitors every Sunday. During my 30 months at that church, attendance went from an average of 40 to around 110 with folding chairs in the aisle. (Maybe I should have quit when I was aheadl I’ve not duplicated those percentages since!)
Seminary was great in those days. I took Hebrew under Dr. Harrison and John Olen Strange, Greek under Ray Frank Robbins, and church history under Claude Howe. I loved every professor I ever had and made lasting friends among classmates.
These days, I urge young ministers to resist the temptation to get all their seminary online. There’s much to be said for the convenience, but there is no substitute for sitting in a class with 20 classmates, most of them serving churches the way you are, and getting into a heated discussion on various topics. The give and take with professors is priceless. Often, in the seminary dining hall, we would invite a professor to join our group to continue the discussion.
Try that online.
When Emmanuel Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi, began looking for a pastor, their chairman called my classmate Hugh Martin, whom he knew. Hugh had just taken a church in Gulfport, Mississippi, so he was unavailable. The chairman said, “Perhaps the Lord wants you to recommend someone to us. Does anyone come to mind?”
Hugh said, “I’ve not heard Joe McKeever preach, but he’s always excited about what the Lord is doing in his church. You might want to check him out.”
As Robert Frost put it, one road leads to another and there is no going back. We pastored over 3 years in the Greenville church (and came away with a hundred great stories of what the Lord had done there) before joining the staff of the great First Baptist Church of Jackson, the largest church in Mississippi at that time. Our three years there were like another seminary education. And in point of fact, it was literally that….
In the early 1970s, the trustees of NOBTS began the doctor of ministry program, a quicker way to a doctorate than the usual Ph.D. route. That’s how, with the church’s approval, I came to be sitting in a doctoral colloquim on the campus of my seminary in the fall of 1972. I was part of the very first D.Min. class.
Heaven alone can measure the fullness of my debt to this seminary. Three years from now, it will be celebrating a full century here in the Crescent City. How strange to think I’ve been associated with it for more than half of that.
Since returning to the New Orleans area in 1990 (to pastor the First Baptist Church of Kenner, across the street from the N.O. airport), I have occasionally taught as a member of the adjunct faculty. I’ve been president of the national alumni and received a couple of gracious citations from the school, plaques gathering dust around the house here somewhere.
Sometimes over the last few years when I would be on campus, to teach a class, visit with a professor friend, or study in the library, I would bump into a member of our church who was enrolled as a student. Invariably, they ask, “What are you doing here?”
As a rule, I give them the short answer (teaching a class, visiting a friend, or the library).
Sometimes I have thought they deserve a better answer than that.
Maybe I ought to say something like this: “I arrived on this seminary campus in June of 1964. I have two degrees from this institution. I’ve been president of three state alumni associations and national president once. I have taught for 20 years at this seminary. I love this seminary. The question is not what am I doing here. The question is, “What are YOU doing here?”
I thank God for the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and its outstanding president, Dr. Chuck Kelley.
Note: I left out a million memories, a thousand blessings, and a hundred people. But this will have to suffice for the moment. Perhaps I should come back later and tell how I insulted the seminary business manager and had to write letters of apology to him, the dean, and the president. Or not. Stay tuned.