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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. justathought

    I thought this story was about love. I can't understand why some people only want to spew hate; is it because they have never experienced true love and hate is the only thing they know? Maybe instead of; faith, hope and love it is: critizism, chastisement and hate. and the greatest of these iis hate?

    July 20, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  2. Anni

    I cried as I read this, I lost my brother 8 years ago, he had CP. He too loved church and singing. He was always praising God and also cracking the preacher up in church. Church can be a miraculous place, for those in need of a place to be a part of something bigger. God Bless this young man and may he continue to touch people, as he has touched me. It just so happens that today is my brothers birthday, and reading this article made me feel closer to him, even though he is gone.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • Jon

      You're brother is never really gone, as long as you continue to remember him. 🙂

      July 20, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Frogist

      @Anni: I'm so sorry for your loss. The sting of death never really goes away but as Jon said, our loved ones live on in our memories of how they touched our lives. Remember your brother with joy.

      July 20, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  3. emac

    Positive energy rather than negative, is something everyone will benefit from... I thought this was an awesome, inspirational story of two people and their ability to encounter and recognize something beautiful amongst all of the obstacles that they were facing... and they chose to share that with anyone who would take the time to read it! I believe when others have an opportunity to enter dialogue it is always more advantageous to offer something positive, something that everyone can recognize and benefit from... Choosing to share something positive, is the first step.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  4. JM

    Thank you

    July 20, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  5. kgriggs0207

    Warning: Lots of negative comments from trolls on this thread. Like many readers, you may be touched by this story– If you'd like to support this story, scroll up to the top and click the "recommend" button.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  6. bxgrrl

    This is simply a very nice story. Good for them.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  7. Charles

    I would like to point out that those from both sides of the argument on belief have one similarity...the lack of tolerance. No matter where you stake your claim it is not up to us to judge the beliefs of another. You have created a division and an "Us vs Them" mindset and ignore that in the end we are all human, we all face trials and hardship. You have taken a story about a community pulling together, drawing strength and inspiration from one another regardless of race and drawn it into a petty argument.

    To those that support and empower Mr. Lucas i salute you.
    To Mr. Lucas and all those dealt a poor hand I would say "Keep moving", though it may not be apparent, you are the true heroes of today. That by continuing to struggle and live throughout all the hardships you remind us that life is not about what we have but rather who we have.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Frogist

      @Charles: And not just Lucas but also his family, including John.

      July 20, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  8. stonedwhitetrash

    I never lost God so there was no need to search for him I always knew God and God was always within me. There is no God but God and he does not have any need for a prophet

    July 20, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • mike from iowa

      I'm not sure if that's pathetic, or just plain stupid.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • JEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEBUS!

      It doesn't have to be either-or, mike. It can be and is both.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  9. Uh Oh

    Uh Oh here it comes, mention God or Religion in a headline and out comes the atheists in full force to bash and complain and whine. While trying to spread their form of religion, their reasoning is simply "We must attack anything that has even a slight reference to God or Religion."

    Let the bashing begin !!

    July 20, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • nickZadick

      If there were stories about pinochio and snow white on the main page of a serious news organisation?? wouldn't you find a need to state that children's fairy tales have no place here?? well we consider religion as a fairy tale and we are indeed right to be puzzled as to why fiction is so prelevent on a news site....

      July 20, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • Peace2All

      @Uh Oh

      Hey -Uh Oh...

      Well, you know, this 'is' a discussion board about 'beliefs' which are definitely open for discussion and debate.

      And, while I would certainly admit that the atheists viewpoint, at times, can be expressed rather harshly, to think that the 'believers' are any less vapid in their responses, is borderlining on 'denial.'

      Main point is... everyone is here to express their 'opinions' on this blog... christian, atheist, muslim, taoist, hindu, buddhist, etc..etc...

      Regards,

      Peace...

      July 20, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • Jay

      Atheists don't have religion. That's the whole idea about it. That's a false equivocation you are making.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • JM

      Call it an attack. I call it as pursuit of truth and honesty. For most people, truth, honesty and reality are ancillary; for some of us, they are important and worth defending.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • Gilberto

      Uh Oh, here comes the un informed again! Atheism is NOT a religion.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Uh Oh

      Ahhh I'm sorry. Atheism is a religion. It's a nasty little secret that Atheists deny. I don't support either side. The atheist venom that spews when God or Religion is mentioned rivial that of any Christian layperson. Science doesn't support either side. Organised religion verus Organised atheism? Same thing.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Bible Clown

      Hey, I've been snapping at both sides all day. This isn't the place to argue about the reality of God. It's a story about someone finding some happiness in a bleak life. I'm an atheist, and I say you can believe what you like as long as you are polite; otherwise, I'll bop you with the Clown Hammer©.

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

      @UhOh: Saying it over and over does not make it true. Atheism is not a religion. Muddying the water with falsehoods only makes honest discussion more difficult. And lends the rest of what you have to say less validity.

      July 20, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  10. Good Grief

    You know what's hilarious? The people who like to spout off "religion is just a fairy tale about sky people," are just as bad as those who stand outside colleges and try to convert people to their religion. Why can't we tolerate people? I don't go around telling YOU what to believe, so stop acting like everyone who disagrees with you is stupid. Or just go back to 4th grade, children.

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

      Sure you do.
      You throw out the ten commandments.
      You are against gays
      get real

      July 20, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • JM

      We do tolerate the sky people worshipers. It's just when they become intolerable that our patience ebbs. Unfortunately, the worshipers are frequently intolerable.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • Peace2All

      @Good Grief

      Hey -GG...

      Per -Jim's comment above in this thread, I agree with, in that it is about the 'actions' that flow from the 'beliefs' of an individual. If your book that you believe in, the 'bible' tells you that 'gays' are wrong/bad etc... and you try to enact literal 'laws' that infringe on their 'freedoms' as individuals in this country, then that is just one example where your beliefs turn into actions where we don't agree with you.

      As secular humanists we are typically 'not' trying to enforce 'laws' on you 'believers' that take away your equal rights under the conti-tution.

      Regards,

      Peace...

      July 20, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • nickZadick

      maybe you should go back to school... you can believe ant stupidity you want....but it is indeed a source of wonderment as to why you nutcases believe in fairy tales and even children realize when they are 8 that santa clause and the tooth fairy are just stories... we really are incredulous that you continue to spout your nonsense...we are actually trying to help you not sound completely ignorant of reality!

      July 20, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  11. Joe

    You see comments on here like do you believe in santa claus or the easter bunny are really meant to elicit a reaction out of the christians and are really uncalled for. As an agnostic I feel no need to belittle or critisize anyone because I realize that no one really knows if their is a God or not. No one really knows if their is life after death or not. Their could be a supreme being. But he could be one very unlike the bible God. Or their could be no God and still life could continue, from some unknown principle, after death. I mean if the quantum physics proposed by so many Physicist are correct, string theory, who knows right. I mean if they are many universis with many copies of me and you in them is life after the body dies so far fetched? But again I never claim to be all knowing and absolutely right. My philosophy has always been that what ever is just is! I can't change it by believing in it or not believing in it. If God absolutely exist nothing I believe or say will change that. If God does not exist nothing I believe or make up will change that. The same goes for life after death. Finally, unlike christians and atheist, I admit that I don't know. I try not to hurt or belittle folks and I try to live and enjoy my life without hurting others. Good Day, Joe.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Jay

      It's not about what you know, or claim to know. It's about what you believe. What do you believe? I'm willing to bet you are an atheist. If you bothered to find out what the word means, rather than your conception of it, you might be surprised.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • jimbob

      So your an Atheist, because most atheists don't claim that "a God doesnt exist" most use there is no god and other terms as tools to troll with. And those that don't say that stuff instead opting to argue and dissect and article or argument for/about god doesn't show they make any positive claims to the existence of such a being, but instead to show how ridiculous and irrational somethings are. Which debating then somehow becomes evangelizing for some reason.

      Atheism is merely the lack of belief, and makes no statement of knowledge. so in that respect, since you say you don't know or don't care, it implies that you reject religion thus making you an a – theist. just because the label carries a negative connotation has no bearing on whether you fit into it or not.

      Also most Atheists read religious article because the topic is usually of great interest to some like my self, who loves theology in a cultural sense but can see the bad logic involved and doesn't believe any of it happened.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      Jim, it's more of a philosophical stance. A-Gnostic means you know the universe is too big and complicated to ever know for sure if there is a god, and A-Theist means you feel sure there isn't one. This is why people claim Atheism as a religion or 'belief.' I feel sure in my heart that the universe doesn't contain a god, so I guess I'm atheist, but I can't really claim certain knowledge any more than Christians can.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  12. Joshua

    Lucas there is a man called tb joshua seek for him he has the power of the holy spirit and can heal u. It will be a give from God to u. Do not follow anyone just believe in the power of the holy Ghost anf u are my brother in christ i love u too my brother praise God for eternity

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

      Jesus said ask anything in his name and he would grant it.
      I asked to see him.
      No answer.
      Lies.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • Bible Clown

      "he has the power of the holy spirit and can heal u." Pictures or it didn't happen.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  13. .

    Thus. it has been demonstrated.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  14. The Truth

    Acceptance of those who are different. If only all churches focused on acceptance and love instead of intolerance and hate.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • kells

      you can't force the church or people to love what is considered a sin, because light and darkness don't go together.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  15. Corey

    Too bad God doesn't exist.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • JMR

      it's a shame, he'd be nice.

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

      Sure I do. I just hide waiting for the proper moment to come and kill those I don't like and live with those I do.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • JMR

      I'm waiting for you, you incapable, ephemeral mutt.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Bruce

      Actually, Corey, God's nonexistence does not impede the ability of the people of that church to love Lucas and each other and by so doing make everybody's lives better. Not in the least.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Jay

      Bruce you are totally right! The point is that they can love each other and provide positive benefit to each others lives without having to pretend they are going through God to do it. All the good stuff that comes from churches can still be there without the religious baggage and hogwash.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  16. JBHedgehog

    TIMMAY!!!

    July 20, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  17. swampman61

    SHEEP

    July 20, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  18. teamroper

    Any fool can criticize and most fools do.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • tallulah13

      You do realize that your comment can be construed as criticism?

      July 20, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • jim

      Yes you do.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Jo

      Isn't that the truth. I'd say all fools do. Wonderful article, very moving. I can say having had to go to a white Christian church during my childhood, they would never had aloud that. If I ever had the compulsion to join a church, it would be a black one.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  19. Misha Gastonai

    The comments in the "Belief Blog" always seem like a bunch of people who hate basketball commenting in a story on the NBA finals.

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

      No. The comments are a place where criticism must be expected.

      In a public forum you will see many views, especially when the topic concerns the beliefs of the majority.

      What we believe matters, so criticism of unfounded beliefs is needed.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  20. chanGe

    The southerns don't realize what a butt of joke they are. Wherever there are gullible illiterate men, you can count on finding one Elmer Gentry there.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:24 am |
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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.