Year in review: Georgia Baptists who inspired us in 2023


People from across Georgia were featured in The Christian Index in 2023. Some are old. Some are young. All are busy impacting their communities for Christ. Here’s a look back at a few of those people.

Charles Raburn

GRIFFIN, Ga. – Charles Raburn and his chainsaw were dwarfed by the massive branches of a giant oak toppled by one of the tornadoes that hit Georgia last week.

In a breathtaking scene, the Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief volunteer stood high above a soggy lawn in Griffin, among those branches in a tree that measured nearly 20 feed around at its base.

Raburn wasn’t intimidated. He whittled the oak, which had damaged two Griffin homes and a garage when it fell, down to size one piece at a time.

Not bad for a 79-year-old.

Raburn, a Cedartown resident who retired from a north Georgia steel mill nearly two decades ago, is one of an army of Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief workers, most of them retirees, who mobilized after the latest round of tornadoes hopscotched across Georgia, damaging homes and businesses in several communities.

Gary Thrash

SUMNER, Ga. – Gary Thrash knows the burdens pastors carry as they minister to the sick and hurting, cry alongside grieving families, and deal with the sometimes unrealistic expectations of church members, all while trying to make ends meet at home on meager salaries.

That’s why the south Georgia deacon feels compelled to minister to the state’s ministers.

Thrash brought more than two dozen pastors to Millennia Farms in the rural community of Sumner on Monday for a day in the outdoors, hunting quail behind some of the nation’s best birddogs on land managed specifically for that purpose.

“I remember times in my life when I don’t know how I would have made it without a friend to come alongside me,” said the 75-year-old Thrash, a retired homebuilder who manages Millennia Farms. “I want to be that kind of friend to these pastors. If a day out here in the country will make their lives more comfortable, will help them to relax, it’s the least I can do.”

Debbie Verrelli

JONESBORO, Ga. – Debbie Verrelli is among an army of Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers who help survivors reclaim their lives and restore their homes after tornadoes touch down.

It’s one of the ways the 33-year-old Jonesboro woman serves the Lord who delivered her from a life of drugs, witchcraft, and satanism.

“I had been through 16 years of addiction, and I came out with a clean bill of health and able-bodied,” Verrelli said. “I was stronger than I had ever been. I thought, what better way to give back than to use my able body for good.”

Verrelli’s testimony is one of radical transformation from a woman who “never met a drug she didn’t like” to an enthusiastic Christian totally sold out to Jesus.

“The first time I met Debbie was at our OneWay ministry,” said Richie Howard, local ministries and missions pastor at First Baptist Church in Jonesboro. “She had dark makeup, dark hair, dark nails, and satanic tattoos on her hands.”

After becoming a follower of Christ, Verrelli’s underwent an unmistakable change – on the outside and on the inside.

Terry Ryan

CORDELE, Ga. – Retired Navy Chief Petty Officer Terry Ryan spent 20 years serving in the U.S. military. Now, he’s in the Lord’s army.

Ryan, pastor of Penia Baptist Church outside Cordele, spent much of his military service as a flight technician aboard a Lockheed P-3 Orion plane, searching the oceans for enemy submarines.

Having shifted from the military to ministry, Ryan is now on the lookout for people in spiritual need, bringing to his new mission the same courage and tenacity he was known for among his Navy brethren.

With a Bible in one hand and his flight helmet in the other, Ryan took time on Wednesday to talk about his childhood, his military career, and his ministry, the past five years of which has been spent in this south Georgia farming community known for watermelons, peanuts and pecans.

Ryan didn’t grow up in church. Instead, his earliest memories are of life in bars, rough ones that drew a tough clientele.

“I remember shootings and drug use,” said Ryan, who, as a teenager, had become adept at hustling people at the pool table and the card table. “I was prideful. I was arrogant. I was cocky. I was promiscuous. I thought I had the world by the tail.”

That all changed when Ryan met Jesus.

Charles Jones

DAWSONVILLE, Ga. – A black Jeep Grand Cherokee made its way slowly along a narrow U.S. Forest Service road Thursday, bucking and jolting across washouts and fallen tree branches in a remote section of north Georgia, a canoe strapped to the roof.

Behind the wheel was Southern Baptist historian Charles Jones whose latest research project took him to a wilderness area along the banks of the Etowah River to look for telltale signs of one of Georgia’s earliest churches where some of the state’s original inhabitants worshipped two centuries ago.

For Jones, research most often involves visits to archives where he sifts through historical records, but on this day he’s walking the Georgia hills, keeping a sharp eye out for likely locations for the long defunct Tinsawattee Meeting House used by Christians within the Cherokee Nation.

Jones and longtime Georgia pastor Todd Gaddis, both  from Athens, unloaded a canoe loaned to them by Appalachian Outfitters in Dahlonega. They guided it into the Etowah in a spot that might possibly have been used for baptisms by the Cherokee believers.

Gaddis likened Jones to Hollywood's Indiana Jones character, saying he's just as adept on adventures as he is in archives.

"His trail name is Atlas because he's a walking map," Gaddis said. "He doesn't get lost in the woods. He knows a lot about many things, especially as they relate to nature and history. He's a walking Bureau of Information. I tell people, 'instead of Googling something, I Charles it."

Bree Howard

WAYCROSS, Ga. — For aspiring math major Bree Howard, it just didn’t add up that South Georgia State College’s Waycross campus had no Baptist Collegiate Ministry.

So the sophomore from Blackshear did something about it. She started one.

“I’m trying to graduate with a 4.0, and that’s important to me,” Howard said. “But this is way more important. This is eternal.”

With the help of professor Amy Fitzgerald, a handful of classmates, and local church leaders, the BCM is up and running on the Waycross campus, which has about 250 students.

As Georgia Baptists press to expand BCMs onto college campuses across the state, they are taking note of the Waycross startup, which shows collegiate ministry can be viable even on the smallest campuses.

Jack Lee

JESUP, Ga. — A resilient Jack Lee is back in the pulpit, serving as interim pastor at First Baptist Church in Jesup.

“It has been invigorating for me,” said Lee, who has been fighting Stage 4 cancer for the past two years. “I’m not just surviving; I’m thriving.”

Lee, 65, had retired as pastor at Altamaha Baptist Church at Madray Springs in 2021.

“At the time, I was to the point I couldn’t preach,” he said. “Mouth sores that the chemo was causing was really giving me trouble.”

Doctors had given Lee a year, possibly two, to live  when he retired. Yet, he’s still stepping into the pulpit on Sundays with the vigor of a young preacher.

“I know it’s all God,” said his wife, Lynn. “He has been so good to Jack. He really didn’t think he’d ever get back to preaching on a regular basis.”

Lee is as energetic as ever in the pulpit, proclaiming God’s Word with boldness, power and conviction.

“I definitely haven’t lost my passion for preaching,” he said at an interview in his home in Jesup on Wednesday.

David Laughner

TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. — This barrier island off Savannah’s coast is billed as the place where time stands still.

It’s a place where families walk barefoot in the sand, where palm branches sway in ocean breezes,  where children delight in an abundance of seashells.

David Laughner arrived here to serve as pastor of Chapel by the Sea Baptist Church more than 30 years ago and never left. He ministers in an ocean paradise. He loves the pace of a beach community.  He enjoys interacting with tourists. He thrives on not knowing who may show up at his charming church just a stone’s throw from the ocean.

“In all the years I’ve been here, I’ve never preached to the same group on a Sunday morning,” he said. “New faces appear weekly. That’s the nature of pastoring on an island.”

Chapel by the Sea has had visitors from every state in the nation and beyond. They’re drawn here in part by Savannah’s southern charm, the city’s rich history, and, of course, its proximity to the Atlantic.

“You just never know who’s going to be here,” said the 67-year-old Laughner who served churches in coastal Florida and inland Georgia before arriving on Tybee Island. “It could be large crowds. It could be small crowds. Last Sunday, we had visitors from eight different states.”

Kevin McDade

CLAYTON, Ga. — In the cool of the morning, Kevin McDade steers a golf cart along the main thoroughfare at the Pinnacle Retreat Center, discussing his first impressions of the Appalachian getaway where he now works.

“When you drive through the gate, the anxiety of the world kind of leaves you,” McDade said. “It’s a peaceful feeling that you’re entering a special place, a place of rest. You can leave the stress of the world behind you when you come in.”

It's easy to sense McDade’s excitement about his new job as administrator at Camp Pinnacle. It registers in his voice as he drives alongside a peaceful mountain lake that bustles with activity during the summer camping season.

“A lot of people have donated a lot of time, effort, love and finances to make this facility what it is today,” he said. “Our job is to make sure we’re good stewards.”

Scott Smith

VALDOSTA, Ga. — Lt. Col. Scott Smith’s regular job is flying fighter jets for the U.S. Air Force, but during the long Labor Day weekend he was manning a chainsaw for one of the Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief crews helping Valdosta residents clean up in the wake of Hurricane Idalia.

“I don’t know that I have a whole lot of the spiritual gifts the Bible talks about, but God has given me a strong back,” said Smith, a member of Central Baptist Church in Warner Robins. “I feel like manual labor is one way I can serve.”

People from all walks of life have joined forces through the Disaster Relief ministry to help hurricane survivors in the Valdosta area, where thousands of trees were toppled by Idalia’s winds.

“We have a medical doctor here, a command sergeant major for the Army, an auto mechanic, a college professor, farmers and construction workers,” said Dwain Carter, director of Georgia Baptist Disaster relief. ”We have a retired meteorologist,  logging company employees, a retired Delta Airlines pilot, people who worked in a nuclear power plant, a restaurant owner, preachers, retired missionaries, pretty much you name it.”

Paul Garrison

TOCCOA, Ga. — As Paul Garrison looks back over a half century of ministry, he sees how the Lord has fulfilled all of his childhood ambitions.

With a laugh, the Toccoa pastor explains that when he was a toddler, he wanted to be a garbage collector, just like those men he would watch from his window each week. In time, his ambition changed to being a firefighter and later a heart surgeon.

In a way, he joked, he met all those aspirations when God called him to be a pastor.

“I became a garbage man to help people get the garbage out of their lives, a firefighter to keep them from the fires of hell, and a heart surgeon to help them change their hearts.”

Garrison is now completing his 50th year in ministry, the past 34 of which have been served at Hill Street Baptist Church in this far northeast Georgia town near the border of South Carolina.

Bud Braddock

SUCHES, Ga. — Standing on a mountainside in north Georgia, Bud Braddock surveys a forest that’s beginning to take on the fiery colors of fall.

For 84 years, the retired U.S. Forest Service staffer has been watching the seasons come and go. It’s a makeover he never tires of seeing.

“It’s a tough life, but somebody’s got to do it,” he said, feigning hard luck as he stood beneath towering oaks just a mile or so as the crow flies from the Appalachian Trail.

Braddock worked 42 years for the Forest Service, living among the flora and fauna with Pat, his wife of 62 years. Both loved the sunshine and fresh air that came with his career. So, when retirement arrived in 1994, the Braddocks built a home in the woods.

Now, they spend time nearly every day walking beneath the hardwoods of Appalachia and leading groups of hikers to some of the state’s most scenic vistas.

“My father told me, ‘son, when you retire, don’t sit on the porch in a rocking chair; you’ll be dead in two years,’” Mr. Braddock said. “So, I didn’t.”

Much of what they do now is through their church, Mount Lebanon Baptist, where he serves as a deacon and is involved in a variety of ministries to local residents.

Helen Hobbs

DUBLIN, Ga. — Just how many tunes Helen Hobbs has played over nearly 75 years is anyone’s guess.

The soon-to-be 90-year-old has been providing musical accompaniment for the singing at Marie Baptist Church since she was a teenager, showing her congregation and her community a picture of true faithfulness.

“This is her ministry, and she’s committed to it,” said Pastor Bobby Hutto. “She has never taken a penny for it.”

Hutto said churches can struggle with a lack of commitment among their members, and to have an example like Miss Helen, as he calls her, is truly a blessing in that people get to see her live out her faith on a daily basis.

“Even with all of these years of playing, she still comes up every week to practice for Sunday,” Hutto said. “She wants to be ready. Even with all the experience she has, she doesn’t take it for granted.”

Miss Helen’s mother enrolled her in piano lessons when she was 14 years old. Within two years, she was playing at Marie Baptist where she has been a member since her baptism at age 10.

Robbie Lane

SWAINSBORO, Ga. — Robbie Lane, the starting shortstop on the East Georgia State College baseball team, has hit a grand slam of a different sort in an at bat as an aspiring minister.

The 19-year-old baptized 11 of his teammates last week in a shiny aluminum watering trough set up on the baseball field.

Like so many other kids, Lane, who began playing baseball as a toddler in his hometown of Claxton, had always dreamed of a career in the major leagues, but, he said, the Lord began to shift his aspirations last summer when he sensed a call to ministry.

At first, Lane said he wanted to run from that call, but, after several excruciating months of wrestling with God, he surrendered his life to ministry and began accepting preaching assignments, first in his home church, First Baptist Church of Pembroke, and then at other nearby churches.

But it was when he began leading an on-campus Bible study that he began to see the fruits of ministry. His teammates began showing up to hear him talk about Jesus. He did it with such enthusiasm. The excitement was palpable, and his words compelling.

One after another, those teammates began giving their hearts to Christ, culminating in the mass baptism in early December.