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July 20th, 2011
06:20 AM ET

Finding God in the Mississippi Delta

By Tommy Andres, CNN

Moorhead, Mississippi (CNN) - The Mississippi Delta is the kind of place where everyone shows up for a funeral.

It was on such a day in 1997 that Lucas McCarty and his grandfather had come to pay their respects to a young man who'd been killed in a car crash.

John Woods was there to bury his son.

Lucas and John had met a handful of times before, but that's the day John found his new son and Lucas his "black daddy" – each one delivered in his own way from a tragic past.

John worked for Lucas’ grandfather on his catfish farm as an “oxygen man." Catfish are fickle creatures, and if they don’t have enough oxygen, the whole lot of them can go belly up in minutes.

He’d gotten the job a decade earlier after getting out of jail. John had killed his brother-in-law on a lonely Delta road, according to T.R. Pearson's “Year of Our Lord,” which tells about John and Lucas. John had been indicted and tried for first-degree murder, but the trial resulted in a hung jury. He was then indicted and tried for first-degree manslaughter - and this time the jury found him not guilty. He was a free man.

At about the time John was starting a new life, Lucas’ life was almost ending before it could even begin.

Elizabeth Lear McCarty’s heart sank when her son was born, the familiar cry of a baby’s entrance into the world replaced by phrases like “no heartbeat” and “no spontaneous respiration.”

Elizabeth says a botched delivery deprived her son of oxygen at birth, damaging his brain.

He was born “gray and dead,” she says.

There would be unanswered questions and a lawsuit, and pretty soon it would become clear that Lucas would never be like other kids.

Lucas has cerebral palsy, a condition suffered when a baby's brain is deprived of oxygen, usually at birth. The condition began to show its devastating effects more and more as he matured.

He never learned to walk, read or write. Even eating was a challenge. It looked like Lucas was destined to spend the rest of his days in a wheelchair, dependent on others for his most basic needs.

Though he has never spoken a word in his life, at age 5 he found a way to say anything he needed to. It would take him years to master it, but the machine he shied away from at first, slowly became his link to his family and the world.

Based on Mayan hieroglyphs, Minspeak allows Lucas to create full sentences by pushing a series of pictures.

If he wants to say the word food, he pushes the picture of an apple. If he wants to say eat, he pushes the picture of an apple followed by the picture of a man running, called the “action man.” If he just wants to say apple, he pushes apple twice.

It can get fairly complex to an outsider. A hamburger, for example, is apple + scale + treasure chest. Somehow, this all makes sense if you’ve never learned to read or write with words.

Lucas grew up going to an Episcopal church, but his mom says he never liked it all that much. He was antsy and easily irritated, and sitting quietly for hours not only was difficult, but practically ran counter to his genetic predisposition.

“His sister kept his hands down the whole time he was at our church,” Elizabeth says.

‘My calling is singing the gospel’

At the funeral for his son, John Woods was touched by the presence of Lucas and his grandfather, James Lear.

“I looked around the church and Mr. Lear was there. Lucas was there. That’s to show you an old black man like me has some dear, sweet white friends,” John says.

Afterward, John began coming to the McCarty house to sing gospel songs with Lucas.

“He really couldn't do much else,” John says. “We would sing songs like ‘God’s Got It All In Control’ ” - no doubt a message that, at the time, offered equal comfort to both of them.

John asked Elizabeth if he could take Lucas to Easter service at Trinity House of Prayer, where he was the music director. John had been saved at Trinity, and he hoped Lucas could be too.

At that first service, John carried Lucas, and because of John’s position as music director, they sat in the deacon’s box, a spot reserved for congregational royalty.

“The Trinity House of Prayer congregation are such a loving environment of peoples,” John says. “A man can be a sinner, a whiner, (but) when they bring him into Trinity House of Prayer he will feel nothing but pure and genuine love.”

The love Lucas felt most was for the music. He fit right in with the loud expressionism and theatrics, and adored the soulful singing. Trinity changed his image of church.

“Shouting, dancing, falling out and speaking in tongues is real church,” Lucas says through his device.

Trinity House of Prayer is known for its choir. Tucked deep into the fertile soil and God-fearing air of the Mississippi Delta, the church is nestled on a flat, barren landscape, one of hundreds in a region where faith is the answer to poverty and hardship.

The chapel isn’t much to look at - an old gray building surrounded by a graveyard of dilapidated vehicles and rusted-out farm equipment. On the inside, windows are covered in a clear red film, a cheap alternative to stained glass. And on a sunny day, the faded carpet and beautiful wood pews light up with a glow that can feel transcendent.

Most notably, Trinity’s congregation is all black – with one exception. Every Sunday for the past 15 years, Lucas has shown up, sometimes carried, sometimes crawling, but always ready to put his “foot on the devil’s head.”

It’s a bit of a peculiar sight, a white man in a black church, on his knees, wailing indecipherably, but passionately into the microphone in the corner of the choir stand. He knows every word, he just can’t say them, but that sure doesn’t stop him from finding his voice.

“My calling is singing the gospel,” he says.

A warm, cleansing oil

Four months before Lucas was born, John Woods prayed for the first time for as long as he could remember.

The hard crack of the pistol, pulled from his waistband and fired without aim on that balmy Father's Day in 1987, rang through his head over and over.

John didn’t know if the man he had shot was dead, but he knew he was in trouble. He and his wife, Mary Frances, cried together until a squad car pulled into his driveway and took John away in handcuffs.

According to John, he heard his sister's husband had beaten her with a pipe, and John wanted to get even. He tracked the man down at a diner to give him a piece of his mind, the gun in his waistband providing punctuation for each cautionary sentence.

But according to John’s description in Pearson's "Year of our Lord," his brother-in-law didn’t take too kindly to the threat. He chased John down a road and pulled out a .25 automatic. He got off two shots before the gun jammed, and before John knew it, he’d shot back.

John wouldn’t find out for sure until he was in his cell that the man was dead, but he had felt the life leave his brother-in-law the second he shot him.

It was in the Sunflower County Jail where John found God. As he sat there in a cold cell, a cellmate told him to turn his life over to the Lord.

John’s life had been far from charmed. Plagued by drugs and alcohol, he now found himself sharing a fate suffered by all too many poor black men in the Delta. But on one of those sleepless nights, John prayed, and that’s when he says he felt it.

“It was like a warm oil being poured down from the top of my head, running slowly down my body, and every place it touched it was cleansing me.”

It was when John got out of jail that he says “old Jimmy Lear” took a chance on him, made him his "oxygen man," always telling John not to worry and “keep moving.”

John would drive around to each pond and put a long stick into the water and check the oxygen levels. The job required him to check the oxygen nearly every hour around the clock, so sleeping was in short spurts spread throughout the day and night.

It was during one of these naps 15 years ago that John had a strange dream. In the dream, Tony, the oldest of his four sons, had crashed his truck, and John was consoling him. John awoke to the phone ringing. It was his wife Mary Frances. Tony had fallen asleep at the wheel coming home from work at 4 a.m.

“God called him home.”

Crawling into the choir stand

Despite being told he’d never be able to walk, Lucas has found his own way, slipping out of his wheelchair and onto the floor at Trinity House of Prayer, where he shuffles around on thick knee pads as if in a state of constant reverence.

Drawn to the music, it was only a matter of time before Lucas crawled up into the choir stand. Not only was Lucas the only white member of the church - and definitely the only member with cerebral palsy - until last year he was also the only man in the all women’s choir. A young man has since joined him.

Trinity’s pastor, Willie B. Knighten, tried to heal Lucas at one of his first services. Lucas says it was the only time he felt uncomfortable at the church.

“I only felt funny when the preacher laid hands on me the first time,” he remembers.

It’s the soft spot within many people that makes them wish Lucas normal, but the hand of God hasn’t taken away his condition.

Still, to nearly everyone who attends Trinity, it’s a small miracle each time Lucas crawls into the choir stand on his own every week to sing. In a small way, he has been healed.

Lucas is a lot like any 25-year-old single man. He likes cars, he loves surfing the web, and the No. 1 thing on his mind at any given time is women. He wants a girlfriend - specifically one, he says, who is “an outgoing sweetheart, who does not smoke, has never had children but wants (them) and is a Republican.”

Lucas’ access to the outside world is a bit limited. Because of his handicap, going anywhere can be an ordeal. He refuses to use a power chair, instead relying on the push of a friend, relative or stranger.

A few days each week, Lucas works at his father’s restaurant in nearby Indianola washing dishes and cleaning. When Lucas was 6 years old, his parents got divorced. It’s no secret that the difficulties of raising an impaired child strained the marriage.

The job gets him out of the house he shares with his mother, something that’s important for a young man whose body is disabled but whose ambition knows no limits. Lucas wants to start his own cleaning company, and during the announcements following a recent service at Trinity House of Prayer, Lucas asks for the microphone, holds it up to his machine and slowly types out the message that if anyone is looking for work, he’s hiring.

Church is the one time a week Lucas knows he can get out of the house, and at Trinity House of Prayer people won’t look away when he comes down the aisle.

“Lucas would be at church every time the door opened if he could,” his mother says. “But we just usually go take him on Sunday. And that's the most important part of the week for Lucas … getting to church on Sunday.”

Lucas has found other ways to connect. He has an e-mail address and a Facebook account, but for years his favorite hobby has been jumping on the CB radio he keeps in the family room. Most of the truckers know him by now. His handle is “Teddy Bear,” and he starts each interaction the same way: “Is there a pot of coffee on?”

John Woods, now Bishop John Woods, has moved on from Trinity to be the associate pastor of a church down the road. He and Lucas still get together, singing their favorite gospel songs just as they did 15 years ago. Lucas’ favorites are “I’ll Fly Away” and “I’ve Got To Run.” Between songs they talk about life and the Lord.

When John asks Lucas if he’s been saved, he shrugs. Despite the music and the love of Trinity’s congregants, he hasn’t quite made his peace with God. It’s a familiar struggle for many, but when you draw a hand like Lucas’, making sense of it all can be even more challenging.

Lucas may still be on a search for God, but the boy who was born without a breath has found his “oxygen man” - and John has found the son he lost.

When they speak of God, John tells Lucas, “Don’t worry, you’ll find him one day.” But Lucas seems content to find his solace “in the music,” and he’s happy as long as he can convince folks of one thing: “I want people to know I am more than a boy in a wheelchair.”

Editor's Note: Nashville band Sleeping Bulls provided the song “Jean Baptiste” from their upcoming album “The Least Banquets” for the video.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Church • Faith & Health • Mississippi

soundoff (1,300 Responses)
  1. WhatWhatWhat?

    LOL, what a waste.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  2. The Offended Blogger

    Christians give Christianity a bad name. This piece is evidence of the fact.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • fred

      You are offended by the kindness and worship spirit inside a church? Best figure out what is really causing all your pain

      July 20, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  3. Dale56

    I am an agnostic and therefore not a believer in anything specific however if this boy and this man have something that they believe in and enriches their lives who am I or anyone else to tell them they are wrong.We in the non believer community hate it when we are beaten over the head with conflicting views and I suspect that the devout feel the same when we do it. Remember, you don't know for sure and neither do I. Anyone who says they do clearly over rates their own opinion.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Fidei Coticula Crux

      I find agnostics to be the most open-minded, free-thinking, non-bias people on the planet.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • WhatWhatWhat?

      Agnostic means you are really a christian that is too embarrassed to admit it, and is hedging their bets for a deathbed conversion. We don't know for sure what? That out of the billions of galaxies in the universe, a being is watching US specifically and cares about OUR welfare, at the same time taking no action to help anyone, even against cruel, horrific evil, or natural disaster, which he is supposed to have initiated? Dude, I think we've evolved way past that many years ago.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Wow!

      Well put. I am a Christian. I can tell you are a well thought out person. Thanks for your honesty and intelligence. You have my respect.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Nympha

      Thank you Dale.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  4. GODISNOTREAL

    It's true, i found him riding a unicorn on his way to neverland.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  5. David Stone

    Does anyone else ever notice that GOD has his strongest following in the poorest least educated areas? Coincidence?

    July 20, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • J-Ex

      Money and educated idiots don't = happiness

      July 20, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • Geoz

      Everyone sees that. It is the "opiate of the people"

      July 20, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • Bruce

      Yeah it's almost like it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven or something like that... LOL.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • JDJ

      It is often in difficulty when a person looks for help outside of themselves. Jesus warned that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven. Being the creatures we are, we tend to think we don't need God when everything is going well. The real message is that we need Him no matter what shape we are in.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  6. IAGREE2REAL

    Very well said. And so very sad that anyone could make anything bad out of this story. smh. Thank God for God. He will protect us from souls like that!

    July 20, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  7. Rob

    logic isn't a strength of the religious

    July 20, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  8. Jerry Senzee

    Why can't we all just get along. .... The sage and philosopher Rodney King.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  9. mol

    "Lucas has cerebral palsy, a condition suffered when a baby's brain is deprived of oxygen, usually at birth. " Actually, 80% of cases of CP are ante-natal i.e before delivery itself.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  10. tjinbk

    Black churches for the most part have a history of accepting the differences of others. Its ironic that the religion they practice is of the white man who has a history of being the least accepting of differences of others.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • Loriel

      Agreed.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  11. David Stone

    @john....no...those things are stupid too, but the article isn't about those things, it is about this nonsense at hand.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  12. Barnacle Bill

    Best reply, ever, in this silly belief blog.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  13. john

    but jumping on a bar table drunk, screaming at the top of your lungs, or making a fool of yourself singing karaoke is just peachy keen.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  14. Iceman

    @William Demuth
    I agree with you there, it is absurd. That is inconsistent with Bible teaching.

    Does God’s ability to foreknow and foreordain events prove that he does this regarding all the actions of all his creatures?

    Rev. 22:17: “Let anyone hearing say: ‘Come!’ And let anyone thirsting come; let anyone that wishes take life’s water free.” (The choice is not foreordained; it is left to the individual.)

    Rom. 2:4, 5: “Do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and long-suffering, because you do not know that the kindly quality of God is trying to lead you to repentance? But according to your hardness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath and of the revealing of God’s righteous judgment.” (There is no forcing of individuals to pursue a prescribed course. But there is accountability for what one does.)

    Zeph. 2:3: “Seek Jehovah, all you meek ones of the earth . . . Seek righteousness, seek meekness. Probably you may be concealed in the day of Jehovah’s anger.” (Would a just and loving God encourage people to do what is right, in hope of a reward, if he knew that they were foreordained not to succeed?)

    Illustration: The owner of a radio can listen to the world news. But the fact that he can listen to a certain station does not mean that he does. He must first turn on the radio and then select the station. Likewise, Jehovah has the ability to foreknow events, but the Bible shows that he makes selective and discretionary use of that ability, with due regard for the free will with which he has endowed his human creation.—Compare Genesis 22:12; 18:20, 21.

    Hope that helps blow the confustion...=)

    July 20, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • Rob

      what is the point of quoting the bible? it wasn't written in english, translations aren't exact, and it is WELL known that the church altered what existed prior for their own agenda when it was translated to english by direction of King James...

      July 20, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • MuDdLe

      @Rob.

      Your ignorance is showing here. Spend a little less time with Dan Brown novels and more time learning the history of the Greek text and the science of textual criticism.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • Manny

      No, that did not clear things up, you just made it more confusing. If god knows what is going to happen, then what is the point of sitting back and letting things run their course? If you create something, then you should take full responsibility for the outcome. The god of the bible, with his obvious human traits (being that he is a figment of the imagination afterall) regretted making man, just before he committed gross genocide; so then he knew man was going to fail and decided to wipe man out. So much for sitting by idle and choosing not to tune in to that station!

      July 20, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • Rob

      how convenient.....I post facts and you counter with mistaken belief....not a strong argument on your side....

      July 20, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • MuDdLe

      If there is a problem with foreknowledge and freedom at all (I think there is not), it has not to do with the fact that there exists a KNOWER of future tensed facts but with the obtaining of those facts in the first place. After all, a parallel argument may be constructed that has no reference to God at all. Suppose it is now true that tomorrow I will mow the lawn. Then, when tomorrow rolls around, either I mow the lawn or I do something that brings about a contradiction. That is, if I refrain from mowing the lawn, I bring it about that it was both true and false that this is how I spend my Thursday. Adding an omniscient being to the mix does not change the logic. At most, it helps us to recognize the apparent problem that is already there. All of the work is done by the claim that the set of all true propositions includes propositions describing future creaturely actions.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • MuDdLe

      @Rob. Listen, man. I'm telling you up front that the view you are advocating here is not taken seriously by any scholar in any relevant field. Perhaps there are problems with the text. But nothing anywhere close to what you suggest is true.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  15. Bible Clown

    Yeah, that's unacceptable. Hold still while I bop you with my Clown Hammer©.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  16. mukazzi

    These so-called atheistic comments (because it's clear that most are just people attempting to throw 'reglious' stones hoping that one hits a target) are so irrelevant. If this were a newspaper or paper magazine, they'd either skim to the next page or not purchase the publication. It's a story of purpose, of human value, of spiritual feeding, of hope (which a practiced faith and belief therein supports). The only thing that worries me about these posters- they're choosing to waste gray cell matter that will never regenerate on throwing silly stones. Learn to build bridges instead of walls.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Rob

      speak for yourself...maybe you should try building bridges back to reality instead of fantasy land

      July 20, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • Manny

      Opening people's eyes to the fallacies and dangers of religion and faith is building a bridge. A bridge of reason that is. Religion kills, if it didn't kill, then believe what you want and live a happy life! but us atheists are tired of child molestation cover ups, suicide bombings, ethnic cleansing, hearing about Jehovah's Witnesses letting themselves or a loved one die over blood transfusions, justification of slavery, child genital mutilation...the sad list goes on and on. The Bible describes atheists as "fools"; Carl Sagan, Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking...these men are were not foolish, they contributed more to the world than the bigot religious leaders like Pat Robertson, the Ayatollah, the Pope and so many others...clearly the Bible was written by fools.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  17. The ONE true GOD

    To my brothers and sisters in Christ, it's getting dark out there, but the dawn is coming. I know it seems as though the wicked prosper, but believe me, the Lord will be magnified. They are guided by the winds of the world, and they value nothing but their own opinions. But your faithfulness will be heavily rewarded, so hold on, be strong, and love one another.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • john

      david (heart of) stone. you have no reason to be angry. none at all. and the fact that you are filled with rage is an indicator that you should seek some psych. help. im not trying to be mean. im just saying

      July 20, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Rob

      rage? where did you get that? I never entered a church so I should NEVER have to put up with being exposed to this crap....keep your BS to yourself...

      July 20, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • Barnacle Bill

      The dawn will come when people like you all die of some mysterious disease.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • john

      david stone. my cousin has down syndrome. your repeated use of the word retard shows your lack of compassion. i dont know why i would expect any more towards strangers on a blog. guess i could hope. you sir are far from being a wise person. no matter what religion, or lack there of, you prescribe to, life has a way of coming around. be careful

      July 20, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • Rob

      the belief in karma is just as ret-arded...

      July 20, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • Zeke2112

      The dawn is merely the fortuitous arrival of his supreme Pastaness. Though you run and hide and cry out for mercy, thou shalt be consumed within his holy meatball, and be sent to roast for eternity in the great Saucepan of Marinara.

      Vermicelli 18:6

      July 20, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • john

      both of you will figure it out. its quite unfortunate for you both actually. i hope you find your path because living in ignorance of the truth is such a waste of time. and thanks for being so kind to me with the retard comments. the internet wont protect you from the hate you spill out. sorry, it just doesnt work that way. i wont be back so dont bother answering. god bless both you guys, i love you.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • sunshine2511

      agreed..... Bless you and may "The One True God" keep you in the coming days.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  18. chang

    My day ain't so bad after all...

    July 20, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  19. Ian

    one of the rare cases I have seen where a person finds a REASON to live due to "god" as opposed to a reason to tell others HOW to live..

    kudos even if I don't believe

    July 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  20. clevercandi

    I found this story to be very moving. I understand it to say that whatever "obstacles" you may face in life, you can overcome them with perseverance and love.

    Peace 🙂

    July 20, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.