Former featherweight fighter Jackie Lester of Hanover punched his way to the top of his weight division in Europe in 1964, while stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army. The spunky boxer defeated a combination of combatants, including two West German fighters training for the Olympics.
“Two minutes is a long time when you’re in the ring,” Lester jokes of his former pugilistic passion.
“The key to success is being in good shape, never letting your guard down, throwing as many punches as you can, and trying to get some respect in a short amount of time.”
Though Lester was never knocked off his feet during a sanctioned contest, he recalls getting tagged with a right that sent him reeling during a sparring match with a heavier fighter.
“I never saw it coming,” the retired Baptist minister recalls, laughing. “It rang my bell and got my attention. When I got to my corner, I asked my coach if he (the fighter) knocked me down. ‘You’re OK, kid,’ he told me. ‘Get back in there and do your job.’”
Lester returned to his home place of worship, Hanover Baptist Church, after he retired from his ministry recently. He continues to make guest appearances at local churches. He served as pastor at Little Cub Memorial from 1974 to 1984 and later at Justice Missionary Baptist Church. He and his wife Sharon (Stacy) Lester are parents of two sons: Todd Lester of Cub Creek and Kevin Lester of Justice. They have two granddaughters, Shanda Kalyn Lester, 15, of Cub Creek and Ashley LeAnn Lester, 15, of Justice.
Jackie Lester’s two-fisted style of preaching won him a solid reputation among his Christian brethren.
And though the retired Baptist minister hung up his boxing gear some 40 years ago he still delivers a powerful punch in the pulpit to sin and damnation.
“I went into the pulpit the way I went into the ring,” says the former gloved gladiator who slugged his way to the top of the European amateur circuit in the early 1960s. “I believed in working as hard as I could to prepare myself and give the best performance possible.”
Noted for his counter-punching approach to the manly art of self-defense, Lester stunned his opponents with a barrage of crafty combinations: a left jab, followed by a straight right, followed by a left hook. His fancy footwork and pulverizing right hand helped the fighter rack up nearly 20 victories while stationed with the U.S. Army in Germany.
Now, time has taken its toll on the retired coal miner and heavy-equipment operator, but the ex-pugilist still strikes a regal stance as he bends his body into a boxer’s crouch. The astute, soft-spoken Baptist minister massages each syllable with a measured, linguistic grace. His potent phrasing is like punches thrown in sequence.
“I never lost a fight as a featherweight,” Lester recalls of his military status. “I was light on my feet and quick with my hands.”
Lester did not lack for any boxing ability. He fought his opponents like a plucky, game rooster—unleashing a flurry of punches in the face of his foe with a fierce intent.
Though he almost pummeled his way to a prestigious U.S. Army championship title, Lester’s fight team persuaded the featherweight to drop down to a lower weight class—the flyweight division—where the muscular warrior literally starved himself out of contention.
“I hadn’t eaten much during the week of our division’s title bout, so I could easily make weight, but my legs were weak after losing almost 10 pounds,” Lester recalls. “It was a mistake. But at the time, it seemed to make sense.”
The wiry combatant lost a 3-round decision in the semi-finals to a seasoned young amateur who went on to lose to a fighter Lester had already beaten.
Later that year, the Wyoming County native got his discharge from the Army and never looked back on his boxing career. “I put it all behind me,” he says.
Lester’s life took on a new meaning once he returned the States. He fell in love, got married, joined the church and within three years became a popular preacher with a commanding presence in the pulpit.
But the road to religious triumph proved as daunting as taking on challengers in the ring. The aspiring evangelist drifted in a sea of uncertainty until his prayers were finally answered.
“I asked the Lord to give me a sign if I was cut out to spread the Gospel,” Lester explains, noting that, for some Christian pilgrims, it’s not uncommon to ask God for a spiritual revelation—kind of like: tell us what to do, tell us where to go, tell us what to believe.
Sometimes, nothing happens—or if anything does happen it’s highly ambiguous and is interpreted in whatever manner is most convenient. Now and then, however, something dramatic and interesting arises—and that’s what happened to Jackie Lester.
In a series of dreams, the dedicated deacon was visited by an incarnation of the Holy Spirit. “The Lord was dealing with me to preach,” Lester recalls emphatically of his devout ordeal. “The first time I wasn’t sure. I didn’t heed it. In the second dream after that, I was preaching again. I woke up and started to pray. I asked the Lord to let me be sure that it was truly my mission.
“Then I had another dream. This time I was on top of a house preaching to a crowd of people below. That is when I determined that God was calling me to spread the Word. I prayed the following morning with a good friend and mentor, Mary Lou Hatfield.
“I didn’t know anything about preaching. All I knew was to get into the Bible and study hard. I felt that God would show me the way.”
During his first sermon, however, the journeyman preacher learned that the path to righteous eloquence is not without pitfalls.
“I thought I would go in with a verse of Scripture and the entire church would be saved and blessed,” Lester remembers of the incident. “I thought I’d preach for about 45 minutes and set the world on fire. Fifteen minutes after I got started, my mind went blank. I was embarrassed. The experience humbled me.”
After his first sojourn into the pulpit, though, it was not long until Lester gained confidence as a speaker and found his own voice when it came to spreading the Gospel.
Infused with the Spirit that enables people to solve their problems of sin based on the pure Word of God, Lester’s Christian mission focused on bringing salvation to the hearts of his listeners.
The minister’s message is clear: “When the Bible tells us that we must be born again of Spirit and water, it means that sinners must repent and make a commitment to God. In other words, it means being born from above.”
From a human perspective, what is required is a practical approach to one’s own spirituality: to light a candle, so to speak, rather than curse the darkness. That is what Jesus called repentance. And Lester’s religious stance seems to emanate from this philosophy of penance.
“It is not a transformation that comes from human beings,” the preacher says. “It is a transformation that comes from God.”
True repentance, according to Lester, implies a change of heart, a change or reversal of direction within oneself:
Mentally, true salvation signifies redirection of one’s attention from the world towards God; spiritually, salvation is forgiveness of sins and the dwelling of the Holy Spirit in a person’s being.
John the Baptist preached these precepts when Jesus arrived at his ministry centuries ago.
“Changing from one way of life to the other is atonement,” Lester makes clear, “and the fruit of atonement is attaining union with God.”
Despite years of orchestrating a fruitful ministry, the Christian soldier remains remarkably humble in his approach to his faith. And yet, he exhibits the same spunky determination in the pulpit that he once demonstrated in the boxing arena.
Only now, the articulate parson thrusts his fists in the face of Satan but relies on strength of spirit to get his message across to his congregation. When he answers the bell, it is the chime in the chapel, not the ring. And he is ready to go as many rounds as it takes until he gains his victory.
“God is not far away,” Lester says. “He is within all of us—if we’re willing to reach for Him.”