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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. someoneelse

    Christianity will die just like every other religion out there (or was out there). It's only a matter of time. We really don't have to fight it at all.

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

      Hmmmm....it's been going strong for the past two thousand years and has far more believers now than when it began. It's not going anywhere. In fact, check out statistics for China. While our society continues to fall away, China is a booming battleground for the gospel with thousands coming to Christ all the time.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Isocrates

      A oppressed and subjugated people turning to religion? Who would have guessed?

      July 20, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Hof

      Voltaire said the same thing. 50 years after he died, his house was used to print Bibles.

      July 20, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  2. Hof

    Well, for starters, we'll be enjoying the Heaven that you think is imaginary for us while you're suffering the Hell that we know will be real for you.

    July 20, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  3. Iceman

    @David Stone
    I only quote Scriptures to provide evidence. If you don't want to believe in the Bibles message- that is your right. Your right to disbelief and the right to remain willfully ignorant about our present situation- True, its an individual right.

    Perhaps you feel better off putting your trust in Mans governments, Washington, The United Nations, Hollywood, Science, and Big Business. That is your right to do so. (I just want to warn you that those hopes are vain pursuits and are ones that will end in calamity). But what good has Man done? He only can live 70-80 years and someone else has to take rule for him when his term ends. So any "good" from his office is only temporary at best. True? Why would a person settle for 2nd best when one can have THE BEST, government?

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

      I suppose if I quote The Stand by Stephen King, I can call that "evidence" of something too, right? The bible IS an attempt by man to govern, to control....therefore it IS one of "man's governments"

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

      It is a fair source, if you believe in it. I think though that is well established that those who look for the evidence after deciding, will find it. No matter how outrageous your belief, you can prove it with the bible.

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

      So you concede that the reason you believe in what you believe is based on "feeling better?" I can relate to that, but that doesn't make it true. And your first paragraph is concerning because some people do not believe, not because it is their right, but because of the unfortunate reality that God (assuming he does exist) did not leave a single shred of empirical, tangible, and observable evidence to justify his existence-and many people require this to take any thing seriously. I'm sure you can understand because everybody requires this when it's a different subject. For example, if I were to boast about having a white duck that floats three feet above my head you would probably look at me in confusion. You would induct what you know about ducks, gravity, physics, humans, the imagination, etc, and probably conclude that I have something wrong with me. It's seems that it's only when the existence of God comes about do we completely ignore out ability to discern between the tangible and the transcendent. This I find to be most interesting.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • email

      watch "the book of eli" and you'll see the real reason the bible was written.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  4. The ONE true GOD

    To my fellow believers: Remember when we were blinded as these are? Remember when we blasphemed God and His people when reading articles like this, or hearing about some preacher who screwed up? Remember when we believed everything on the History Channel, or in the class room? Remember when we thought those "strange people" in the church are so naive, and gullible? Take a look today at these comments. This is who we used to be! Let's praise God for the revelation of truth we've received, and for pulling us out of the lie.

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

      I used to believe as you do, and feel like I have more truth now.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • The ONE true GOD

      Well Geoz, I believe He may need to bring you full circle in order to strengthen your faith in Him. Sometimes we are not so willing the first time around to accept what He has for us, but I promise He will not forget you...let it run it's course.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  5. Loriel

    Do you mean "souls?" Half wit.

    July 20, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  6. Loriel

    Only an embittered athiest could find something negative to say about this story. No matter what your personal beliefs, (or mine), if this young man finds solace and joy at this church where he is accepted unconditionally with love and respect, then it is an important story. It is important that we see the circle of compassion and that it is possible. This story has much more to do with that than any spirituality. I feel sorry for you that you cannot see that since you are so busy being a "free thinker" that you can't look beyond the confines of your anti-religious cage. I might be an athiest also; but this is a story about human compassion and how to find it in the most unlikley places.

    July 20, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  7. Shawn

    I am friends with a man that suffers from the same condition and let me say up front that it isn't a disability. I know fully functional human beings that are worthless so when I compare them I stop thinking of him as disabled. It is from the weakest among us that we can learn the most. And what you learn is that they aren't weak at all but unbelievably strong.

    July 20, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  8. Rob

    it looks like you listed a bunch of other stupid behaviors to try and justify the stupidity of being religious....it's almost as if you were trying to say that people do stupid things all of the time so why take notice of the stupidity of their religion

    July 20, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  9. andrew

    inspirational. i think it really says something about america today that we care about this man more than almost anything else.

    July 20, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  10. John B

    OOOhhhh....so THAT is where he's been hiding. Someone tell him the world could really use him now please.

    July 20, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  11. Steve

    It is called FAITH

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

      people who put their faith in a "god" are lacking faith in themselves....that couldn't be more pathetic....

      July 20, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Nympha

      And what is your reason for telling this person so? Do you enjoy insulting people? Why are you spreading hate?

      July 20, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • GodPot

      Funny thing faith. Many people have claimed to have it, they had faith their sick would be healed, they had faith their leaders would treat them well, they had faith someone would save their poor wretched souls. And we as humans have somehow come to revere faith simply because it is believing without proof, something magical, something mystical and that swells something up inside humans, that they would fight to the death for an intangible belief they can neither prove nor disprove. I would liken it much to the Knights code of honor, which demanded fatal actions if certain words of offense were spoken to them, not because they were defending their life or anothers, but they were defending the invisible code in their hearts, honor. And as much as we look back wistfully, the true face of "honor" and "faith" is far more muddied and stained. Countless lives have been thrown away due to careless words or offhanded comments that were taken as blasphemous. We kill and have killed for ages based on nothing more than telling someone else their faith is misplaced. Humans can no longer afford ignorant behavior, cannot afford striking others based on honor or faith, it has outlived any supposed usefullness it once held. It should no longer be revered or thought of as an asset, but is now only a liability.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Ryan

      Godpot-

      Very well said

      July 20, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  12. Ryan

    “an outgoing sweetheart, who does not smoke, has never had children but wants (them) and is a Republican.”

    It's interesting, that the poor people always, tend to vote Republican, yet, that is the one party that does the least for that class. It's like being a fan of a sports team regardless of how that team is doing. Except..........It's not a game!

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

      Ryan, I find it difficult to believe that any of the women Lucas' age who attend the same church he does are Republicans. It is interesting that this desire of his rules them out.

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

      Self-sufficiency is always difficult to comprehend for those who are afraid to try it.

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

      Bruce-

      It is...but he is following suit like most is all. He was raised to believe that the republican party is good....the rest are bad. It's an amazing idea to me. Like supporting your democratic/rupublican candidate regardless of how silly they might be...."but they are my party!". As I said....like a fan of a sports team. But good story in general. But just for the fact that the kid found something that makes him happy. Nothing more than that

      July 20, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Bruce

      I agree, I'm just surprised that while Lucas seems to have found happiness in that church, he doesn't view any of the people there as potential life-mates.

      Either that, or he's woefully-misinformed as to what "Republican" means. I suspect he gets that from his mother.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • Ryan

      Bruce-

      Right. I wonder why he has not found one there? Maybe he does like one but has not told anyone.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Rob

      so you are saying for this guy religion is okay because ignorance is bliss?

      July 20, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • o.k.

      Poor people tend to vote republican? You have some statistic to back that claim? Lets be honest, the poorest people in this country fall typically (not always) within one or two significant minority groups (african-americans and latinos) who vote democratic by wide margins. Admittedly, I base my conclusion simply on observation and the news, and I'm willing to consider that the poor vote primarily republican if you have a source for that conclusion.

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

      Rob-

      I'm not in the least so I'm not sure who is on this thread really. More of a comment directed toward the political comment of it. I'm not in support of religion in any form. But that conversation is a boring one to me.....since science has solid data and religious folks have nothing even close. yawn..........

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

      Southerners in general usually vote republican. Mainly because republicans push more of a godly platform. Some of the poorest and backwoods parts of this country...well are southern. But good point about mexicans. Maybe I should revise that to the poor of OUR country.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • Ryan

      The bigger point-if your poor and down and out.....why would you vote republican? I'm confused.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Rob

      o.k.–is there some reason you can't google that info yourself...it is readily available....for a large part, republicans consist of two main groups...there are the very rich who got theirs and do anything they can, legal or not, to stop others from getting a piece...and then there are the very poor who feel that minorities are the reason they didn't get theirs....the dems are mostly the middle class....they do well enough to waste a lot of time trying to help people that don't deserve it and spend way too much of other people's money to try and get it done....but yeah...it is a factual statistic that a majority of poor people happen to be/vote for republicans....

      July 20, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  13. Sy2502

    I am glad this young man has found his call in life by praising the very god that gave him his disability.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • Sy2502

      Sarcasm intended.

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

      Good story....but the only reason a diety exists is for people just like this....who need something to grab onto. Nothing more than a fairy tale. But at least the kid found something I guess

      July 20, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • hgabriel

      Ever heard about Job? God might be lifting his spirit to the Hights unimaginable to you, poor thing.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Ryan

      Hgabrieal-

      I'm sure that's what it is....."poor thing"

      July 20, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Hof

      And if you read the Book of John, Chapter 9, you'll know exactly why He did.

      July 20, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  14. WhatWhatWhat?

    No performance, only mental, delusional disease.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  15. Get a Grip

    I have not seen a more vicious and hateful post than yours.. Unlike Lucas who was born without oxygen, you were born without love or compassion. You were born with poison in your heart. This is story about a church community who has taken in someone who needs love and acceptance, unconditionally, and that is exactly what they give him.. Blessings to all of them, for they truly demonstrate the love and teachings of Jesus... You.... may God have mercy on your pathetic soul... I only hope that you can find in your life someone or people who will love you and accept you unconditionally... it will be helluva challenge, no doubt..

    July 20, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • Loriel

      Good reply.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • Rob

      not a very christian reply...oh wait....it has hate and ignorance so I guess it is a christian reply

      July 20, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Nympha

      And yours is even more full of hate and ignorance. You are lumping yourself in your own comment.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  16. Bible Clown

    "lost soles" My Clown Shoes© say that's ok, because they can get re-soled. They can be half-soled if you'd like that better.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  17. john

    you dont believe in god. you then go to an article on god. you then post you dont believe in god so you can get a bunch of "likes" from others like you. you then feel good about your decision to not believe in god. a very strange sequence.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  18. john

    dont play games. you know where im coming from

    July 20, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  19. TP

    Actually, he's not raking in bushels of cash and there is no performance. Better luck next time.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  20. humtake

    Such a great story. I wish the news was filled with more of this than of the negative, biased trash. These stories are much better.

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

      ii say we send every politician and lawyer the way of old yeller and start our society over with people that can actually get things done.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:31 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.