Lee Hencely has preached the Gospel on busy street corners and in pot-holed parking lots. He has thumped his Bible in soup kitchens and baptized believers in the Ocmulgee River.
Once, during a pop-up sermon at Indian Springs, he climbed on the back of a Chevy Cavalier. He lost his balance and fell off. He picked himself up, just as he’s done all his life, and returned to King James.
Rev. Lee was not born to preach. His ministry has been a born-again, wake-up calling.
He didn’t become a Christian until he was in his late 40s, when he joined Union Baptist Church in the Fort Hill neighborhood, the only white worshipper in an all-black congregation. He was drinking a case of beer a day, not exactly the kind of sobriety test that will stamp your ticket to heaven.
Lee is not a man of the cloth, unless you count shorts and a T-shirt. You won’t find him wearing a preacher-man suit, polished shoes and silk ties.
What you see is what you get. And, for some lost sheep, it is all they need.
Today is Easter Sunday, a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the biggest church Sunday on the Christian calendar.
Lee will preach at the Ye Darm Church on Vineville Avenue, across from the Big House of the Allman Brothers fame. There usually are between 25 and 50 people in the congregation on Sunday mornings, only they don’t all flock there. He picks them up and takes them home in a donated van, making the rounds at the downtown shelters.
On the second and third Saturdays of each month, he delivers Scripture lessons to the homeless at Central City Park. On Wednesday mornings, he gives devotionals to the less fortunate at Macon Outreach at Mulberry Street United Methodist Church. He reaches out with daily Facebook Live feeds to anyone who will reach back.
Lee is the most unconventional preacher I’ve ever written about, except for the late Halo the Great, who had a hearse buried underground, preached sermons from an open casket and, to the surprise of no one, was once a guest on “The Jerry Springer Show.”
I first met Lee 10 years ago. I called him “the apostle of Walnut Street.” We went to work every day on the same square block. I was at the old Telegraph offices on Broadway. For 40 years — must be something biblical — he pumped gas at the Saf-T-Oil at Walnut and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
It’s the corner where he was “saved’’ the first time, in a literal sense.
Lee ran away from his home in Monroe County when he was 10 years old. His family life was unstable, and he was a self-described “swap-around child.’’ He was born in a barn — not a manger — to a mother who was half Cherokee Indian. (He has a tattoo of an Indian woman on his right arm, although he has no clear memory of what she looked like.)
He landed barefooted on the streets of Macon, broke and broken. He slept in abandoned buildings and hunted for food in trash cans and dumpsters.
A big-hearted man named Bob Mullis took him under his wing. Mullis was the owner of Saf-T-Oil and had pumped the first gallon of gas there when the station opened in 1935.
Mullis let him stay in a room above the shop, where the sounds of passing trains and logging trucks rattled the walls at night. He paid him 50 cents an hour to fill gas tanks and clean windshields.
Lee never attended school. He learned to read when men would drop by the service station, newspapers folded under their arms. They would point out words in the stories.
Over the years, Lee moonlighted at other jobs, too. He worked at the Macon Youth Detention Center and in the spinning department at Bibb Mills. He picked up extra paychecks as a security guard and custodian.
Now, he is doing the work of the Lord. His wife, Amy, who works at McDonald’s, is the primary breadwinner in the family.
His health has declined in recent years. He has diabetes and has battled cancer. He has no health insurance. Three years ago, he lost his house on Herbert Smart Airport Road, where he had lived in since 1999.
“They told me in 2015 I wouldn’t live to see 2016,’’ he said.
His friends nicknamed him Lazarus.
There are three crosses on the back windshield of his sister-in-law’s PT Cruiser, just like the three crosses at Calvary. In blue letters are the words, “GOD IS GOOD ALL THE TIME.”
When people notice they honk, wave or give him a thumbs up.
“I’ve had them pull me over and ask me, ‘Brother, would you pray for me?’ ” he said.
Two months ago, a man flagged him down on Eisenhower Parkway. His marriage was in shambles. He confessed about his addition to drugs and alcohol. He showed Lee a 9 mm pistol and said he had contemplated suicide.
Lee placed his hand on his shoulder and prayed with him.
The man gave his gun to Lee and his life to Jesus in the parking lot of an indoor flea market.
Sometimes, church is wherever you are.
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.