On July 20, 2019, the parking lot at Mauldin First Baptist Church overflowed with vehicles from South Carolina and surrounding states. Inside, people crowded the pews including the balcony so that no empty seat could be found. Peering over the balcony bannister, one saw a sea of folks, many dressed in khaki cargo shorts and colorful mission tee-shirts. On the platform, two quilts lovingly crafted from special beach and mission tee-shirts hung on display. People continued streaming in and searching for seats in the already full sanctuary. As 1:00 p.m. neared on that hot, lazy Saturday, a video livestream began broadcasting the event to folks scattered throughout the United States who could not attend. Muffled sobs punctuated by low, intense conversations and occasional soft laughter permeated the church. Then, a complete silence overtook the crowd. For, on that day, the family and friends of Dr. Lester “L.E.” Williamson, gathered to remember this remarkable man described by Rev. Steve Genoble of Simpsonville First Baptist and others as having, “that special gift for making you feel that you were the most important person.”
Who was this Lester “L.E.” Williamson, and how had he ended up in Mauldin, South Carolina? L.E. was born in Augusta, Georgia, but spent his childhood through early adult years in Columbia, South Carolina where he graduated from Dreher High School. He continued his education at Mars University, acquiring a B.A. in physical education. This was followed by a stint at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary for a Master of Divinity with Religious Studies and a Doctorate of Ministry in Marriage and Family Counseling from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. L.E. served as a youth pastor at churches in Clinton, North Carolina and Virginia Beach, Virginia, but in 1989 all that changed. At the age of 34 years, L.E. moved with his family to Mauldin, South Carolina where he accepted the call of Student Pastor at Mauldin First Baptist Church. This became his lifework. For 26 years, he tirelessly served among Mauldin youth and students, helping them to discover “how to do this thing called life in a different way” according to one of his former students, Abby Whitt. Then, for his final 4 years, he transitioned to the position of Senior Adult Pastor, bringing the same enthusiasm, grace, and care to this group of people. “He had a love for everyone, no matter what the age or the situation,” relays John Center, a family friend.
Throughout the 2-hour memorial service, speakers tried to define what it was about L.E. Williamson that drew others to him and inspired them to be bolder in their faith. No matter how serious the speaker, invariably, some humorous story found its way into their eulogy. It seems that one of L.E.’s most noted and consistent characteristics was his smile. He sang loudly; he spoke loudly; and he loved to draw out the words “well” and “y’all.” Despite being such a humble and modest person, many dubbed him “larger than life” and “one of a kind.” Some remarked on his disorganization, aversion to written schedules and budget preparation, and penchant for dressing in khaki cargo shorts with a mission tee-shirt. All clearly noted that L.E. focused on caring relationships and drawing people into a nurturing environment of faith. He really didn’t pay that much attention to appearances, but people, especially students, were precious to him.
Rev. Chris Gillespie, Minister of Students at Dearmeadows Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida identified the trait of authenticity. “In a world where everyone is trying to be like everyone else, L.E. was himself and that’s what made him great and that’s why you loved him,” he declared. Over the years, L.E. and his wife, Jenny, opened up their home and their lives to the youth to include pancake breakfasts, Sunday dinners, just watching television, Bible studies, and spending time with his family. L.E. especially treasured his family—wife, Jenny; daughters, Elizabeth Lynn and Maria Anne; son, Lester Evan; and granddaughter, Olivia Lynn, proudly alluding to them in almost every conversation.
Students witnessed how to live out a life of faith firsthand. “You were always there for me and for my family, through every high and low,” declared Abby Whitt. So, it was. L.E. was available when someone needed to talk. He nurtured their faith, baptized them, attended their graduations, married them, and visited them when they were sick or experienced loss. He remained involved and caring throughout their lives. John Center concluded that L.E. was indeed “the real thing.”
Rev. Tommy Cox of First Baptist Church of Laurens identified a tremendous heart for missions. He spoke of L.E.’s collaboration with youth ministers from other churches to pool resources, gifts, and talents, making possible meaningful and memorable Garden Center Beach Camp trips. Generations of students from Mauldin and across city and even state lines experienced changed lives and a deepening of their faith through this ministry. L.E. helped to start the Carolina Mission Team or CMT where he ultimately became its heart and soul. When they experienced difficult times on these trips, Rev. Cox recalled L.E.’s words of certainty, “God has brought us here and He has that in control. We are going to be OK.” Here was someone who relied heavily on prayer both in his personal walk and in his service to the Lord. His passion for khaki cargo shorts and mission tee-shirts came out in these beach and mission trips, too. At the memorial service, John Center laughed as he gazed over the congregation and shared what he thought L.E. might have to say about it all, “It took you more than 30 years, but you finally learned to dress more comfortably!”
Today, many will ask if it is possible for one person to truly make a difference in a world bent on such violence, ugliness, and hate. Yet, in the wake of L.E. Williamson’s passing on July 12, 2019, many students in the Mauldin community and throughout the country have come to know and follow Jesus, a number of them becoming youth ministers, worship pastors, and ministers themselves because of the impact of his witness, guidance, and teaching. His legacy of discipleship alone proves that a life given over to a cause greater than oneself, the cause of Jesus, can truly change the course of things for generations. As Rev. Wade Leonard, Senior Pastor of Mauldin First Baptist and close friend of L.E. Williamson stated in closing remarks, “The way he did it, it so worked because he gave everything to Christ. L.E. had that down. He got that right.”
At 64 years old, L.E. looked forward to retirement because he really wanted to attend a gathering with all those students and others whom he had served. Despite an illness that sapped his energy and vitality, he also desperately desired to go on a mission trip to Savannah, Georgia this July. He enjoyed seeing the sense of community, camaraderie, and purpose that accompanied such events. L.E. did not get these opportunities due to his untimely passing. Yet, as those, who came to celebrate a life well-lived, prepared to leave, Rev. Wade Leonard issued a challenge. “L.E. gave it everything he had. God determined his work was done, but ours is not.” L.E. would have liked that because there is always a mission to be undertaken, a higher and greater purpose awaiting, someone who needs a listening ear and a caring heart, and a time to wear colorful mission tee-shirts and khaki shorts. Let’s not waste those opportunities!