Eastern Wake: Opinion

Column: James Lee’s wisdom offers us an example to follow

By Johnny Whitfield


Without a doubt, the greatest part of this newspaper gig is getting to meet people. Some are in the community’s upper crust. Others are barely hanging on because of all the personal baggage they carry. Most folks fall somewhere in the middle. Some are newsmakers by virtue of their position in public life. Others aren’t public figures by any definition you could imagine.

But I’ve always believed that every person has a unique story and every person has some truly redeeming quality that makes them worth getting to know.

This is a story about a man you absolutely ought to get to know.

James Lee was the first black man elected as a town commissioner in Wendell back in the 1980s.

He served with distinction and he made really good use of his time as a town commissioner, bringing much needed municipal water and sewer lines to a part of Wendell that was just crumbling to dust because it lacked the same kind of resources people – white people – just a few hundred yards away enjoyed without a second thought.

James gave up a career as a successful plumber to enter the ministry. He told me once about that calling and being led to join the ministry. As I listened, I wondered what it was like to be led to something. It was a concept I couldn’t really understand and, honestly, I sometimes struggle with it today.

But James knew he needed to make that change. So he did. For the last 25 years or so, he’s led the flock at First Baptist Church in Wendell.

I’ve attended a few services there and the congregation is an aging, but spirited, group. The music is intense and the preaching is powerful. His congregation is faithful and they seem to know what a gem they have in their pastor.

James doesn’t miss a chance to minister to anyone. When I was asked to consider service as a deacon in my own church, I wrestled with the idea in a big way. I talked to James about it. We prayed together. He didn’t tell me what to do.

Selfishly, that’s really what I had wanted, so I wouldn’t have to make a decision myself. But James is so much smarter than me. He gave me some things to think about. Then he told me to talk to God, not him. In hindsight, I know that was the right thing for him to say.

I’ve sat with James in his living room and talked with him about racial tension in the wake of the police officer shootings and I’ve worked with him on Rotary service projects, giving books to local school libraries and ringing the bell for the Salvation Army.

Regardless of the circumstances that brought us together, I always felt a sense of calmness and compassion when James was nearby. Conversations have always come easily and there was often a pang of disappointment for me when those moments together ended.

I grew up with his youngest son Gary and, in recent months, I’ve gotten to know his son Michael. They are, like their dad, first-rate people.

I’ve grown to love his wife, Merle, for her quiet servant’s attitude. She reins James in when he needs it and she pushes him when he needs to be pushed. They are, I think, the perfect couple.

Every place has a person who serves as their community’s moral compass. James didn’t sign up for that duty in Wendell, but one way or another, he’s had the role thrust upon him.

He has proven to me, time and time again, that wisdom comes from a rich life experience and a proper sense of what is right and what is wrong. James’ compass is true. And Wendell wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t for James Lee.