Celebrating 66 years of preaching
Lee Sigmon remembers the day four years ago he first set foot inside the First Church of God, situated atop a steep hill off Broadway Street on the outskirts of Lenoir. His future wife, Mary, had been encouraging Sigmon, a confirmed Lutheran, to join the church where she had been a lifelong member. He had heard about Pastor Venoy Pearson, but had never seen him in action.
"He was in the front pew, right in the center," Sigmon said. "They all said, 'That's Pastor Venoy. That's him with the ponytail.'"
Right away, Sigmon knew this church was meant for him.
"He's just real," Sigmon said. "I think he's the most influential pastor in Lenoir."
Pearson has been changing lives and preaching for 65 years.
The church Pearson has led for 51 of those years is honoring Pearson today. Much like a mild-mannered celebrity roast, folks will get up to give testimonials of how he has changed their lives. Among them will be Sigmon, who stands out as a white person in a predominantly black congregation.
"He counseled my wife and I before we got married," Sigmon said. "He said, 'You guys are going to face a lot of adversity, much like we as a nation will have to overcome prejudice.' That's one of many things that sticks out about Pearson. Once I got here, the openness is what struck me. Everyone comes from different backgrounds and life experiences. I felt very comfortable here."
Pearson, 87, grew up in Burke County and attended Burke-Olive High School in Morganton. He enrolled in the U.S. Navy and is a World War II veteran, serving aboard the USS Upshur, a destroyer. He got out of the Navy at age 22. The war was over, and Pearson wondered what the rest of his life held. Since he was a boy, he felt called to preach, but he had to first shake off his wild ways.
"I had to tone my life down," Pearson said in an interview at his modest Old North Road home. "I got saved after the Navy. I started living right."
Pearson served as a traveling preacher for the first 15 years. He wanted a church home, but first he needed credentials. He attended Clarke's College in Atlanta, and Anderson University in Indiana. At Hood's Theological Seminary in Salisbury he earned a master's degree in theology. Pearson formed the First Church of God, and later the Hartland Church of God in Morganton, splitting his time between them.
Along the way, he fathered 12 children. His first wife, Ruth Witherspoon, died in 1964, and he married his current wife, Clara Mae Dixon, in 1986. When he wasn't preaching or spending time with family, Pearson earned his keep working for the Broyhill family, serving as the Broyhills' limousine driver and gardener, and performing other duties.
He also delved into local politics, serving as a former president of the Lenoir-Caldwell Chapter of the NAACP and as former chairman of the Freedom Development Community Corp., a group that was instrumental in giving the black community a voice in Lenoir city matters. He founded a day care center at his church and worked with troubled youth, providing programs to help turn their lives around. He also aided in the completion of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center's gymnatorium.
Pearson moves with a slower gait now. He gave up the Hartland church to another pastorship. Three years ago he had heart surgery. He uses a walker to get around, and oxygen bottles to help him breathe. Two years ago, his son Jerome Pearson took over the preaching duties. Sigmon says Jerome is a chip off the old block, seemingly undaunted by preaching to a congregation where many have been members longer than Jerome's 32 years of life.
"When Jerome preaches, he has a lot of his father's traits," Sigmon said. "He knows what his dad has here, and he's comfortable with it."
The elder Pearson still feels the pull to preach and on rare occasions prepares a sermon. But he is there every Sunday, turning heads as he shuffles down the center aisle to take up his spot in the front pew.
"He comes down that aisle, and every face lights up," Sigmon said. "His son's preaching, but hey, there's his dad saying, 'Preach, son; teach, son.'"