Pastor Jack Lee is shown here baptizing Thomas Swilley at Altamaha Baptist Church. Lee is retiring as the church’s pastor at the end of July.
By Roger Alford
MADRAY SPRINGS, Ga. – Things grow big in the fertile soils of Madray Springs.
Consider the lofty pines that stretch high into sky, oversized watermelons far too heavy for the average child to carry, and, of course, the massive Altamaha Baptist Church, otherwise known as the Miracle of Madray Springs.
In one of the least populated communities in southeast Georgia, Pastor Jack Lee has spent the past 20 years shepherding a church that, by sheer dimensions, looks like it belongs in a major city.
The towering steeple is the first glimpse motorists get of the church as they approach on Oglethorpe Road. Then an opening in the trees yields a full view of the expansive building.
How did such a remarkable church come to exist here?
“It wasn’t me,” said Lee, who has baptized nearly 400 people in this community of irrigation rigs and log trucks. “It was God. I just got out of the way and let Him do what He wanted to do.”
Now, 63 years old and fighting Stage 4 cancer, Lee is preparing to retire as pastor and allow God to call a new shepherd to Madray Springs in rural Wayne County, some 10 miles northwest of Jesup. He plans to preach his final sermon as pastor on July 25.
Van Dempsey, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Jesup, said Lee has grown one of the largest churches in Wayne County in what might seem an unlikely location.
“I would attribute that to Jack’s good leadership and faithful walk with the Lord,” Dempsey said. “He’s just a great guy. He’s highly respected in the community, has a great reputation in town, and is a true friend and a great brother in Christ.”
Lee accepted Christ at 16 at Little Creek Baptist Church, where his then-girlfriend Lynn, now his wife, was a member. After high school, he and Lynn got married and he became a construction worker. Then, he began feeling a call ministry.
“I just couldn’t find peace,” he said. “I felt like the Lord wanted more.”
For a while, Lee accepted invitations to fill in for pastors at local churches. Then came the confirmation that he was waiting for in a worship service at a church where he was preaching.
“I had told the Lord, ‘if you want me to preach, let someone be saved today,’” he recalled.
Lee had given the invitation, urging anyone who needs to be saved to come forward as the final hymn was being sung. On the first two stanzas, nothing.
“I bowed my head and was silently telling the Lord, ‘well, I guess, you don’t want me to preach.’ Just a that moment, a child came up on stage, walked right up to me and tugged at my pants leg, and said, ‘I want to be saved.’ The rest is history.”
Georgia Baptist Mission Board Executive Director Thomas Hammond called Lee “the pope of Wayne County” and his wife “the first lady of Wayne County.”
“It has been an incredible thing to see how God has used these two people to care for a church and to grow a church,” Hammond said. “They have served so faithfully together.”
Hammond said Lee has preached the Word with accuracy and conviction and that he has led his church to be generous, evangelistic and mission minded. And, Hammond said, Lee’s influence has stretched to every part of Georgia because of his service on the Georgia Baptist Mission Board’s executive committee and administration committee, two key posts that determine the priorities and direction of the state’s largest religious organization.
Wayne County has been described as a bit of heaven on earth. The people are friendly. The countryside is beautiful. Myrtle blossoms add splashes of white and pink to all the greenery this time of year.
“I was sitting on my back porch, and it was a very, very beautiful day, and, I was looking at the beauty all around me, and I thought to myself, Heaven is a lot more beautiful than what I’m looking at right now,’” Lee said.
Lee has been thinking more about Heaven since his cancer returned. The doctors say he may have a year or two, but he leans on the truth that he has always preached: that the Lord, not the doctors, will determine that.
Last year, those doctors found and treated cancer in his liver, colon and lungs. They attacked it with chemo and cyberknife radiation therapy for six months. A couple of weeks ago, doctors found more cancer in his lungs. They gave him a chemo pump that’s intended to help keep the cancer from spreading farther.
Lee said the cancer has given him a deeper understanding of two very important facts: that every day is a gift and that nothing is more important than time with family. He and Lynn have two grown daughters, Jessica Bowen and Danielle Hall, both of whom are teachers, and six grandchildren.
“My retirement isn’t because I want to,” he said. “It’s because I want to spend the time I have left with my family.”
The cancer has also given Lee a clearer understanding of faith.
“There’s the faith to believe no matter what happens, you’re going to be healed,” he said. “Then, there’s the faith to believe that, whatever God brings, you’re ready for. I believe God can heal, but I know I’m ready for whatever he brings my way. I think it’s sometimes an even stronger faith to say, ‘I’m ready to go, and if it’s His will, it’s His will.’ That’s not a lack of faith. That’s true faith. That’s what it means to trust God. I’ll be honest with you. I don’t wake up every morning saying, ‘I’ve got this amount of time to live.’ I just wake up every morning saying, ‘I’m glad I’m alive and I’m going to make the best of every day I’ve got.’”
Gerald Harris, a retired pastor and former editor of The Christian Index, described Lee as “a faithful and compassionate pastor.”
“In the last 20 years, I have preached dozens of revivals, but Jack Lee is one of only two pastors who wanted me to go visiting lost people in the afternoons prior to the evening services,” Harris said. “I saw that as a great example of his passion to reach the lost and honor the Lord. There is no minister in Georgia for whom I have greater respect that Jack Lee.”
His congregation feels the same way about Lee, said Ray Moore, a deacon at Altamaha Baptist.
“The church is sad,” he said. “When you’ve had a pastor good as Jack for 20 years, you can’t help but be sad.”
Moore describes Lee as a beloved pastor who has built strong relationships with his people by simply being himself, a man who loves the Lord and loves people.
“He’s the same every day, everywhere he goes,” Moore said. “He doesn’t change. If God ever decided to write another chapter in the Bible, it wouldn’t surprise me if He used Jack Lee the way He used the Apostle Paul. He’s just that kind of man.”
Lee said a fellow came up to him earlier this week and said he was surprised to hear he was giving up preaching.
“I’m not quitting,” Lee said. “I tell people I’m retiring from the pastorate, but I’m not retiring from preaching.”
On his final three Sundays as pastor at Altamaha Baptist, Lee said he wants to impress upon the congregation that the best is yet to be for “the Miracle at Madray Springs.”
“To be at this church at this particular phase of life is more than I could have ever hoped for,” he said. “The Lord has been good to me. He has blessed more than I could ever imagine through my ministry.”
So, when Lee exits the church as pastor on the last Sunday of this month, he hopes members of his congregation might look back over the years and say, “Job well done.”