Tying people up, stabbing them with swords and cutting them in half are some of Baptist minister David Garrard’s favorite tools for sharing the gospel.
They work so well, the Louisville-area resident explains because they get people’s attention.
“It makes me an interesting person,” says Garrard, a 65-year-old Kentuckian. “Some of the things I do might be able to get you to listen to me for five minutes.”
No doubt. But it’s time for full disclosure: Garrard is not a Bible-wielding, homicidal maniac but a career children’s minister and a world-class, professional magician with decades of experience performing to local and national audiences on television, stage and in church.
He’s an author on magic, has invented his own tricks and famously stumped Penn and Teller on their hit show, “Fool Us.”
Magically speaking, he’s the real deal – and that’s where the handcuffs and ropes, swords and straight jackets come in.
But he’s also described as equally talented and dedicated as a pastor to children and their families, a ministry position he held 42 years at St. Matthews Baptist Church in Louisville until his retirement last September.
And those two areas of his life are not separated by water-tight doors. Instead, Garrard says they complement each other: “That’s when the magic of ministry comes in.”
It also requires a lot of hard work, and throughout his ministry, Garrard has steadfastly resisted advertising himself as an evangelist performer.
“I do not like to be called a Christian magician,” he says. “I’m a magician who is a Christian.”
That approach enables him to take his tricks, and his faith, into a wide range of venues.
“As a magician, I go places my pastor can never go.”
‘A genuinely great magician’
Garrard’s style doesn’t come at the expense of values, says Lance Burton, a master magician and Louisville native who performed in Las Vegas for 30 years before retiring from full-time performing in 2010.
“David is very sincere in his beliefs and everybody respects that,” says Burton, a close friend of Garrard’s more than 40 years.
“One of the things I like about him is he isn’t saying ‘this handkerchief is Jesus, and this one is the tomb.’ That’s bad for magic and bad for religion,” explains King, another Louisville native who, like Burton, has known Garrard since the 1970s.
Instead, he says, Garrard has developed a compelling onstage personality and performance that opens the way for encounters in which his beliefs and infectious positivity can shine through.
“If you spend five minutes with him you know he’s a genuinely great human being, and if you watch him do magic for five minutes you know he’s a genuinely great magician,” King says.
Burton notes that professional magicians highly respect Garrard for inventing his own tricks and routines. He’s not one to copy others. Some of his tricks have even been modified and used by other performers, including in national and international settings.
“All his stuff is well thought out and very creative,” Burton says. “In the magic world that is the thing that gets you the respect of other magicians – what have you brought to the art? That’s what all great magicians do, and that’s what David does.”
Burton is convinced that Garrard could have gone to the top of magic and would easily have been able to land a regular show in Las Vegas had he chosen that route.
“He had a very commercial act, and people liked it.”
‘Minister to the whole congregation’
Garrard’s reviews are just as glowing on the church side.
Fellow ministers say he excelled at developing lessons and worship experiences for children, and for training lay people for children’s ministry.
“Our people not only trusted David but also entrusted their kids to his ministry,” says Altus Newell, the pastor at St. Matthews Baptist Church in Louisville from 1975 to 1982, and the man who tapped Garrard to be the congregation’s children’s minister.
“He was the best we’ve ever seen at giving children’s sermons in worship,” he says via e-mail.
Garrard’s calling and passion for children’s ministry have been consistent over time, says Greg Barr, the senior pastor at St. Matthews since 2010.
“I remember telling someone last summer, as I was watching him (Garrard) on stage: ‘he’s as excited about this VBS as he was the first one. And he’s done 42 of them,’” Barr says.
Garrard also was so respected by St. Matthews members that and he was often asked to perform weddings, baptisms and funerals.
“He emerged more as a preacher and minister to the whole congregation,” says Barr.
His ministerial influence extended well beyond the church walls, says Carrie Veal, president of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Children’s Ministry Network and minister of children and community life at Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Veal says she’s never met Garrard, but knows his reputation for innovative ministry with children and as a standard bearer in that field.
For one, his longevity in the position, at 42 years, is uncommon for children’s ministers. That’s especially the case for men, who have traditionally been scarce in that calling.
And he was a groundbreaker for the profession as a whole, she adds.
“He was a pioneer in children ministry in a time when churches were just not hiring children ministers, whether it was a gender issue or not,” she says. “He pioneered it for all of us by showing that children’s ministry is not just babysitting and childcare – it’s helping children form their faith starting at a very young age.”
‘The hook was set’
Garrard says magic was never meant to be his sole calling.
“I was able to find a huge piece of God’s will for my life” at St. Matthews, he recalls.
But he admits that as a young adult and seminary student he never saw children’s ministry being in the cards for him.
“If you had told me at Samford (University), ‘you are going to go to a church, you are going to stay there 42 years, you’re going to be working with children and still doing your magic,’ I would have gone ‘you got the wrong crystal ball, buddy. Because that’s not me.’”
In hindsight, however, that path seems clear.
Garrard was raised a preacher’s kid. His father, Forrest Garrard, Jr., was the pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Atlanta. The elder Garrard was a major influence and encouragement to his son becoming a Christian at age 9.
He was introduced to magic by his father, for whom it was a hobby with which to dazzle the family and guests visiting the house.
“I just got used to seeing my dad do this stuff,” Garrard says.
And it wasn’t long before Garrard was getting into his dad’s shoebox full of magic tricks.
“Then I learned all that.”
When the boy’s talents exceeded his own, Forrest Garrard connected his son with Felix Snipes, the celebrated evangelist who combined music ministry and magic. Snipes, who died in 2010, had been a regular revival leader at Mount Vernon Baptist.
Through Snipes, Garrard says his 12-year-old eyes and mind were opened to a much-expanded world of magic – including tricks that thoroughly baffled him.
“You talk fish on a hook? The hook was set.”
‘A magical Grady Nutt’
But it wasn’t a hook just for magic. Garrard says he admired how Snipes, and also his father, were able to make connections between tricks and spiritual truths.
“I saw real quick how magic could be used to get somebody’s attention,” he says. “Sometimes you have a trick that will illustrate the truth. I was excited about that.”
Still, his calling and career path weren’t apparent through Garrard’s teenage years. A love of music – he sang at church, in the Atlanta Boy Choir and still plays the cello – led him to attend Samford to explore music ministry.
But encounters with performer-ministers such as Baptist humorist and evangelist Grady Nutt, and André Kole, a Campus Crusade for Christ magician who performed on college campuses, demonstrated for Garrard that magic could be part of a career in ministry.
After switching from music to history at Samford, Garrard headed for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“I was going to seminary because I wanted to be a magical Grady Nutt.”
‘You’ve been entertaining them for years’
But God had additional plans up his sleeve for Garrard. They appeared, at first, as the field placement requirement for second-year students at Southern.
“It had to be some kind of supervised experience in ministry,” Garrard recalls. The usual options, including youth and music ministry, didn’t appeal.
So, he approached Newell, then Garrard’s pastor at St. Matthews, to ask about opportunities at the church. That was in 1976.
“He said, ‘What about working with our kids?’”
Garrard explained to Newell that he had no training or experience working with children.
“He said, ‘You might know more than you think you do. You’ve been entertaining them for years.’”
He took the assignment but was doubtful of his qualifications and of his ability to create meaningful worship experiences for the congregation’s little ones. Again, he says, God knew better.
“It was one of those times when you look back and see that a whole bunch of things were coming together, and where somebody else sees something in you that you don’t see in yourself.”
He became the official children’s minister after the internship and his graduation from Southern in 1978, with the part-time status enabling him to be away some weekends for magic gigs. The arrangement worked well for the church, too.
“He did such a good job putting people in leadership positions that it wasn’t all dependent on him being here,” says Barr.
Besides, the magic sometimes came in handy for the church. Garrard used it occasionally to keep kids focused, and he was a favorite among hospitalized children needing their spirits lifted.
“He loves kids and he’s kind of a big kid,” Barr says.
Adults – including Barr – benefited, as well.
“Once we had David do a straitjacket escape in the middle of the sermon about God releasing us from bondage.”
Plus, it was evident that, like his performances, Garrard’s active participation in area magic clubs was a form of ministry to people in those settings, Barr adds.
Garrard’s purposeful integration of magic and ministry was present from the outset, Newell recalls. “He used magic and other media to illustrate gospel truths, but he didn’t overuse it just to entertain.”
‘Walk amongst them’
Balancing between seemingly competing spheres has been one of Garrard’s best tricks, and one he learned early.
One of his first paid gigs was at Louisville’s historic Galt House Hotel, where he entertained diners with quick magic tricks as they waited for dinner. He was in seminary at the time.
“I didn’t go up to a table and do the ‘King of Hearts with Jesus’ tricks,” he says. “I just did cards and coins and magic.”
But over time he got to know the wait staff, the maître d’, the management and the regular customers. Brief encounters through magic often evolved into relationships in which authentic sharing took place.
It was in evidence again in 2016 when Garrard performed on the Penn and Teller show “Fool Us.” The national-television appearance, though not religious in content, featured an introductory video sharing his Garrard’s work as a children’s minister, a photo of St. Matthews and an image of him holding a sign spray painted with “John 3:16” as he describes himself as a “general practitioner of magic.”
Had he been pulling Jesus out of a hat, Garrard says, he wouldn’t have been invited to that or other non-church venues where his preach-by-example approach could be effective.
“Over time I had the chance to share faith with a lot of folks. That’s where it’s at.”
It was an approach modeled by fellow Louisvillian Grady Nutt, whose motto had been to live the faith. “He always said ‘walk amongst them,’” Garrard says.
“You just never know how God will use some of this stuff. But you can’t go out there and hit them over the head with the Bible.”
The wonder of faith and magic
Retiring from church ministry isn’t a disappearing act for Garrard.
Recently he led a friend’s Bible school in Texas and he’s already thrown himself into committee work at St. Matthews.
“I have been on committees but always as staff liaison,” he says. “Now it’s as ‘Joe Church Member.’ It’s an opportunity to serve and to do what I have been asking others to do for 40 years.”
Nor is he putting magic on the shelf.
He’s expanding his performance presence on social media, including his Facebook page, YouTube channel and web site. In March, Garrard performed in an event in Alabama supporting the victims and first-responders of the state’s recent spate of deadly storms.
Late last year he debuted “Deceived,” a new magic show he designed to help youth and adults avoid being fooled in harmful ways. Audiences are encouraged to try to figure out how he does his tricks.
“I want you thinking about life in the same way,” Garrard explains. “It illustrates the truth that what you focus on will determine how you see and understand yourself and interpret everything around you.”
It’s what Garrard has been about for decades, said Stephanie Bell, 28, who grew up at St. Matthews and in Garrard’s children’s programs. Now she is his magic assistant.
“I always looked forward to going to church” as a child, she recalls. “He has a way of getting you to understand what Christianity is about without it seeming cliché.”
In was in that context that she learned the connection between building relationships and sharing Christ.
She remembers telling her parents, at age 9, that she wanted to become a Christian. Garrard immediately got involved.
“He picked me up and we went to McDonald’s and talked about what it means to be a Christian,” she says. “He does that with everyone.”
She also caught the magic-as-ministry bug from Garrard.
“I say, ‘I’m a magician’s assistant,’ and all of a sudden people are going to listen to whatever I say,” Bell says. “It presents a lot of opportunities to talk to people.”
It’s easy to get to spiritual matters in those conversations, she explains. “A lot of people will ask how I got into it, and I’ll say, ‘Well, my children’s minister got me into it. And that brings in church. It’s a snowball effect.”
Garrard believes it’s in those moments that people can glimpse the wonder inherent in both faith and magic.
Like magic, he says, “faith also requires us to be able to accept a certain amount of mystery.”