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)

    god on the way back

    July 20, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Bible Clown

      If you dare, go to the Intar nets and type in 'an al' without that space. God doesn't seem to get His way about that, sorry. Grosses me out too.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  2. kgriggs0207

    Like many readers, you may be touched by this story–and that's why you'll find a lot of negative comments on this thread. "Trolls" love a feel good story because they can easily find a way to upset people. If you'd like to support this story, scroll up to the top and click the "recommend" button.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  3. J. Holley

    i loved this story.
    good news...good news....good news.
    i am a chrstian, and i loved this!
    BRAVO, to cnn, lucas, his family, and the church and its members.

    also, i think noslend has a point.
    funny, many don't believe in G*D, but i bet most sure believe in Hell and the Devil.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Ron

      I don't believe in your religions hell or devil. They're your religions creation...so why be afraid of it.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • tallulah13

      That makes no sense. Why believe in the devil if you don't believe in god? Why believe in hell if you don't believe in heaven?

      July 20, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  4. FelipeBR

    Primitive people, put them in caves too.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  5. Joe

    Wow! Relegion and Atheist together make a good blog! First let me start by saying I consider myself agnostice. I don't believe anyone knows weather their is a God or life after death and the two topics might actually be seperate. I actually consider atheist and christians similar groups of folks. Both are condescending both of you claim to know that their is or is not a God absolutely. Your made for each other. Let me start with the atheist. Science does not say and has never said that their is no God!. Science is neutral and only says that it can not prove that their is a God. Some scientist have a personal view that their is not God but it's actually philosophers, who say that their is not God. Equally for you christians your junk creation science makes you look foolish so please abandon that. But likewise it is also philosophers who advocate the existance of a God. So see folks thats why these two groups are at each other's throats all the time. My personal beliefs are complicated. I don't believe in little green aliens but I don't think human consciousness evolved. The human body evolved but that part that makes us consciouss came from somewhere else. Am I wrong? Of course I could be. Nothing I ever say about what may or may not be after death is certain. But at least I admit it. Good Day, Joe.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • Marcus

      You are exactly what you hate. go back and read your statement. LOL

      July 20, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  6. Confused

    Why is this on the news? Do you beleive in the easter bunny too?

    July 20, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • Bible Clown

      Easter Bunny? Totally real, because I've seen Him. He was at the mall.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  7. Joseph

    The biggest sinner of all is God.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  8. Sam

    You are such an ignorant person.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • Ben

      You are an ignorant person to believe in such a fairy tale.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  9. rbwatsonIV

    Most of you are too ignorant to see the point. It' s not the fact that they believe in God, it's the point that God has given them the inspiration too live. I don't necessarily believe in God but I think it's important for people that aren't well off in this world to have something to believe in and give them faith. Quit being so selfish with your own beliefs and respect the fact that everyone is different and different things work for different people.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • JOHNNY

      You're right, but wouldn't it be more beneficial if people focused on helping each other and the advancement of our civilizations as apposed to reading folklore's and choosing to believe that only their religion goes to heaven. Regardless of what you believe, you can not deny the fact forming religious groups only distances people from those who do not share the same beliefs.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  10. George

    What a bunch of freaks.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  11. Silly..But Saved!

    That was so inspirational. I pray for the naysayers on this blog.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  12. kgriggs0207

    Like many readers, you may be touched by this story–and that's why you'll find a lot of negative comments on this thread. "Trolls" love a feel good story because they can easily find a way to upset people. If you'd like to support this story, scroll up to the top and click the "recommend" button.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  13. Patricia

    An absolutely beautiful and touching story. God is good. Praise Him!!!!!

    July 20, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  14. bob

    Wow... A heartwarming story where you attack the obese... Nice. Any welfare abuse comments? Perhaps single parent black household attacks?

    July 20, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  15. Barney

    I pray you find God. Read about Christ, and read His ministry in the first 4 books of the New Testament. Let Him in. Let go of control. This kid is a blessing to every person at that church. Would he be a blessing to you? Or, would you look at him uncomfortably and walk on by? The thing is that every person that has taken Christ into their hearts hasn't done so by being tricked or brainwashed. Just about everyone who has found Christ had been just like you.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • Frogist

      @Barney: Honest question. What if a person was tricked into believing and accepting Jesus into their heart as you say. Would it really make a difference? Would you care? Or would you just chalk another soul up to the Lord? In the final tally, does it really matter if someone was tricked, or brainwashed or willingly indulged, so long as they believe with all their hearts?

      July 20, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  16. chris

    haha nope, brainwashing at its finest! in 50 years, society will look at religious nuts like we look at polygamists today.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • bob


      July 20, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • Bible Clown

      You mean they will have a reality show?

      July 20, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  17. Geezer

    Instead of wasting time paying homage to some nonexistent sky daddy they need to lose weight. Thirty percent of the bible belt is obese; not just overweight, but obese.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • Freddy

      Colorado is the only state with a obesity rate of less than 20%. Looks like you are a lard ass too!

      July 20, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  18. Idiots Abound

    And how does this matter to you?

    July 20, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  19. Noslend

    Why are so many non beiievers drawn to belief blog? If I didnt believe in God, I wouldnt waste my time entertaining the thought.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • MrHanson

      Because they like to take every opportunity they get to ridicule.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • greg

      You call this a belief blog? get real dude, this is a forum for poor me's and irresponsible behaviour, then,when the behaviour gets a light shown on it,the hands strat raising to the sky and calling out some name and think all will be forgiven and well, we all live under the same roof,same physical laws, beleif blog? tell that to the tourists...

      July 20, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Ds

      They feel their daddies or mommies don't love them, and this is how they cope.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Pirate

      If you want TRUE inspiration read up on a real hero, Stephen Hawking! Seems the top minds in the world are primarily atheist, and the lower you go, the stronger the beliefs in an invisible man in the sky!

      July 20, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • Frogist

      @Noslend: A discussion of belief in gods (which is what the Belief Blog is about) includes the discussion of the lack of belief in gods. CNN vindicates this by publishing articles about atheism here as well. You don't have to like it, but you have to accept it. And couldn't your post have reflected your thoughts on the article itself instead of promoting more prejudice against atheists? That goes for the all those who replied to your with disparaging comments too.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  20. someguy

    I love how atheists feel the need to spew every single aspect of their beliefs whenever there is a story concerning religion. They preach about how they hate being indoctrinated with ideology that they don't agree with yet they do exactly that. You people talk about equality and acceptance, but when it comes down to YOU practicing equality and respect, you seem to ignore these concepts when dealing with someone that has differing views than you.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • William

      You raise a fair point. However, as an atheist, I can tell you that the only way to get past the wall of religious indoctrination seems to be through direct challenges to, what we recognize as, irrational thoughts. If you saw kids being taught that 2 plus 2 equals 5, I think you would be vocal in your opposition too...

      July 20, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • EmeraldCity

      And how is that generalization working for you?

      I'm an atheist. And have no problem with this man's affinity for the church and his choir. I am glad that there is freedom of religion in this country and fully champion his wish to be a part of same, if that's what he desires. From a social standpoint, his involvement with these people and the music has probably given him a better sense of purpose. What happened to him is heartbreaking for him and his family. He deserves every bit of support possible.

      Still, the article makes mention that he "hasn't made his piece with God." In that respect, I hope they're not ramming salvation down his throat, because I've met plenty of Christians who believe it their mission to do so.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • Ds

      It's just a bunch of ad hominem dribble. The fact they are so defensive and quick to lash at at people who think differently from them speaks much louder scientific volumes about their own mental deficiencies than someone who chooses to have a little faith and see the good in humanity and stories like these.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • That's your argument?

      it is a proven fact that 2+2 is not 5. It is not proven fact that their is or isn't a deity. Thus, your argument is null and void. As an agnostic I can tell you that to some believing we came from Ape's is just as "irrational" as believing we came from a deity. Live and let live, you are wasting your time trying to prove the other side wrong. Life is too short, worry about your happiness and concentrate on being a good person!

      July 20, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • Ding

      Emerald...in a way though, if you believed something to be true...like really believed...no doubt, for instance, the only way for others to be happy or not suffer eternal damnation (or whatever), wouldn't you feel wrong by not trying to convince others.

      This is not someone being obnoxious over their love for Outback, this is something they feel will harm you if you don't believe it.

      I'm surprised most people aren't as passionate about trying to convince others, primarily those they care about when their religious beliefs differ.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • That's your argument?

      There* ( not their ).

      July 20, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Bruce

      But William, this article isn't about people being taught 2+2=5. The article is not about people being taught about an invisible sky-Daddy who cares about them. It's not even about people being taught that there was a man named Jesus who had a 3-year ministry in the middle-east some 2000 years ago who died and resurrected from the dead. Seriously–read the article.

      The article is about very real things and very real people. It's not about the nonexistent love of some "God" as atheists understand the term, but about the very real love of people in a church who help each other get through life. Whatever ideas or stories or myths might or might not inspire them to love each other is a sideshow. The main attraction is the love itself.

      To come in here and paint this story as an example of religion teaching 2+2=5 is to completely miss the point. It's missing the point on a scale that is arguably worse than someone reading the Book of Genesis and concluding that the earth is less than 10,000 years old...

      July 20, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Pirate

      If your own full brother, or your son or daughter, or your beloved wife, or you intimate friend, entices you secretly to serve other gods, whom you and your fathers have not known, gods of any other nations, near at hand or far away, from one end of the earth to the other: do not yield to him or listen to him, nor look with pity upon him, to spare or shield him, but kill him. Your hand shall be the first raised to slay him; the rest of the people shall join in with you. You shall stone him to death, because he sought to lead you astray from the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. And all Israel, hearing of this, shall fear and never do such evil as this in your midst. (Deuteronomy 13:7-12 NAB)

      July 20, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • Ding

      Thanks Pirate, that explains it...

      July 20, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • Frogist

      @someguy: I am a non-believer, and many others here are too. And they have by and large said that they support this young man's quest to find happiness. You eagerly leave them out in your blanket statement that we are all just disrespectful hypocrites. Then you mention nothing of Lucas, John or their story. Who's being the hypocrite? Furthermore, your post speaks as if a few posts on a blog can equate all the hate and division that billboards and churches and presidential candidates and religious organizations have been "spewing" since time immemorial which you continue with your post. You want respect and equality? Then you must give some. It starts with actually reading the posts that the non-believers have written. If you can dismiss us all as swiftly as you have, you must not have done so before. Maybe now is a good time to start.

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

      @That's your argument?
      "As an agnostic I can tell you that to some believing we came from Ape's is just as 'irrational' as believing we came from a deity."

      Incorrect. There is plenty of evidence for evolution (althought we didn't come 'from apes,' but from a common ancestor with apes) and literally no evidence that we were created as is by a deity.

      July 20, 2011 at 2:31 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.