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. Joe

    Oh sorry I never focused on the story, sorry. What ever the reason I'm glad that some good came out of the tragedy that these folks have faced and lived. Cerebral Palsy is a horrible disease and to see a young man try to make the most of the cards life dealt him is so inspiring. You know we all can't be born perfect. How many would just give up were they in the same position? But know Lucas is trying to make his dealt hand pay off. Good for you Lucas. My thoughts are with all those who suffer. Good Day, Joe.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  2. Gregory Wiley

    I love hearing stories like this. It just makes my day. Thank you Lord, and God bless you all.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
  3. David Stone

    I would love to see a South Park adaptation of this story. TIMMMAAAYY!

    July 20, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  4. Frenchy

    Must be a slow news day......

    July 20, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Bruce

      Right, because writing articles like this one prohibits them from reporting the news at the same time... Yeah.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:59 am |

    Jesus let a drugged-out murderer go free and made another kid be born brain-damaged. What miracles! Ah, Jesus' love is wonderful!

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

      no matter what you sau God still loves you

      July 20, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  6. Joe

    Jay! If atheism is about what you believe rather than what you know then tell me what makes atheist different from christians? Nothing! Thats what! I am agnostic because I genuinely don't know the answer to the questions that atheists and christians pose. So for me it's about more than belief. I want to know for a fact what their is or is not. If I can't know then I will remain agnostic till I do know. So if atheism is no more than a belief I have no use for it. Not that I have ever had much use for it anyhow. Good Day, Joe.

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

      true atheism is not believing in anything, no god, no after life, no questions... you are born, you live, you grow old, and finally die. i guess we could go one step further and say bugs and insects eat your dead corpse, but nah! lol.... anyway, if you heard an atheist ask you a question about any type of belief and really try to make your answer seem wrong then they are wrong, they can not nor will not ever be able to discuss any type of belief due to what they know. me personally, the idea of a god or gods is just silly... if someoen today said they were the son of god, and being most of us lets say are believing in multi gods, this crazy dude says there is only one god.... after the words " i am the son of god" most everyone would start to either laugh at him or call someone to see if they are missing a patient! because it was said 2 thousand years ago and the people then were totally fine with that BS then cool, but i won't just buy into what equals the BS story of santa! to which is another gaint lie we as a nation keep telling our kids, consistly too! that may be the only thing as a nation we do consistly... lie! maybe thats why we seem to love religion!

      July 20, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Fidei Coticula Crux

      In find agnostics more open-minded and less bias than any other belief system in the world. To me, they are truly the free-thinkers, here.

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

      Typo correction... change "In" with "I"

      July 20, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • Belloch

      Hippy they weren't cool with it. They nailed the guy to a cross.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • Jay

      Joe! You don't understand what the words mean. Atheism is not a belief. It is the absence of a belief. The difference between christians and atheists is that christians believe a god exists, and atheists do not believe that a god exists. Note that I said they do not believe a god exists, not that they believe there is no god. It is a subtle point, but very important. You are like many, many people who mistakenly think being agnostic is some middle ground between theism and atheism – It's not. You either believe a god exists or you don't. If you don't, because you don't know either way or just don't care or think it's not possible to know, congratulations, you are an atheist. You can still be an agnostic too. They are not exclusive. There are agnostic christians and agnostic atheists. Agnostic just means you don't think it's possible to know for sure, but you can still believe or not believe one way or the other. You're welcome.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  7. Slewatha


    July 20, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  8. justathought

    @ Joe Well said. ________________________________________________________________________

    July 20, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  9. Marsha

    This was an uplifting story - REGARDLESS of your views on Christianity or religion. Two men have been comforted by THEIR faith, which obviously works for THEM, though it may not be everyone's cup of tea. There is no hatred in this story, only lessons to be learned by ALL of us, and I applaud CNN for writing it. It is sad to read the venom in these comments below. Please, can't we just be happy that someone has found joy in their own special way? Please. Do not poison others with your condescending comments ... and this goes for BOTH sides of the issue.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  10. Jon

    I love that this is a "feel-good story." A church opening it's choir, overlooking the disabilities of one of it's members, and truly allowing anyone the freedom to worship regardless of their situation. HOWEVER, if this person was running for public office, instead of the "feel-good" story here, the media would vilianize this church for some inane belief that they would take wildly out of context and present it to the American public as the most fundamentalist extreme church ever to lay it's foundation on our shores.

    This is the media's algorithm: Religion alone – fine.....Religion and politics – wacko fundamentalism and hatred.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Bruce

      But Lucas wants a girlfriend who is a Republican. It doesn't get any more political than that! 😛

      July 20, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  11. Andi

    Nice story, until the part about him wanting a Republican girlfriend. What's up with that?

    July 20, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Peace2All


      Hmmm... One might conclude, given the religious nature of this gentleman, that quite often... 'religious' can and does (but not always) goes hand-in-hand with 'conservative' political views... or the GOP (republicans).



      July 20, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Bruce

      I was wondering the same thing. How many women Lucas' age that attend his church are Republicans? I would guess very few, probably zero. Are those girls not good enough for him?

      July 20, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Frogist

      Guys! You don't remember when you were 23? We all had some pretty weird ideas of who was right for us. Hopefully Lucas will find out that a person's politics is not the be all and end all of relationship needs. BTW That line in the article made me LOL!

      July 20, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  12. SnowBear80

    Awesome story. Thanks.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  13. friend

    What a wonderful story of love and acceptance! Thanks CNN for sharing this.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  14. John

    CNN Belief blog is a waste of space

    July 20, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • Dino B

      Then why are you here, John? Hateful idiot.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  15. Christina

    This story is about love and the power of it. Call it God, Call it whatever you want. But the outcome is still the same. It touches us in our hearts:)

    July 20, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  16. OH

    "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 !!"

    Actually that's a generalization and that's why you experience a fair amount of this "bashing" you're talking about... plenty of religious people are guilty of being uninformed and then bashing others...

    Way to set an example by standing on the sidelines and jeering though... that's how you'll prove those nasty heathens wrong, amirite?

    July 20, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  17. fred

    Based on your comment I take it you do not see the difference between Santa Clause and Jesus?

    July 20, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  18. Mai Tucentz

    "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."

    I found this to be the most significant part of the story. Very nicely done CNN. Inspirational, encouraging, and heartfelt. Rare for a story nowadays.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • travelin man

      I agree. The story was beautiful and inspirational...but that one sentence wrapped it up for me like a gift at Christmas. It brought tears to my eyes.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  19. U.S.Army-OverLord

    I know God is real because he told me that he is. For those who are so sure that God is not real you better hope you are right. Death will for each of us back into the spirtual realm, it is there when we will find out what truth is.

    July 20, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • Bruce

      I know God is nonexistent because He told me that He doesn't exist. So there.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • Aaron

      I heard Santa Claus is real because he told me. Oh and I think I forgot to mention I have schizophrenia.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Veritas

      Fear of death is precisely why many people believe in "god" and an afterlife. Some of are instead firmly rooted in reality and accept life for what it is and try to live the only life we have to its fullest. Free yourself from the childish fairy tales, and from slavery under religion.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Peace2All


      Please look up "Pacal's Wager" and get back to us about hedging your bets.



      July 20, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • Veritas

      ...and of course, in death we will not find out anything about any "truth" as we will then have ceased to exist. Death is the same as before we were born. There is nothing to be scared of, except perhaps painful dying.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      I know Dog is real because I saw him on tv.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  20. Joe

    I will say this, after reading this blog, it is the atheist that seem more arrogant, condescending, and spitefull more so than the christians. I have seen more atheist, on their high horses, than christians on theirs on this blog. Well atheist let me say this, just as I tell the christians, you don't have absolute knowledge no more so than any other group. Your science does not support you nor more than it supports christians. Science is like me, agnostic. I feel no need to belittle folks it's a shame atheist do. You know folks might take atheist more serious if they came across as caring adult human beings. I too see the failings of relegion. More wars have been waged of some form of relegion than for any other relegion. But then again relegion of some sort has always existed. Early humans worshipped sun gods, moon gods, and animals or nature. So it seems man has always, from inception, sought for a higher meaning. This mere, simple act, intrigues this agnostic. Why are we the only creature that seems to be consciouss, self aware if you will? Perhaps it's a freak of evolution? Perhaps not! But regardless atheist can't explain it, try as they might, and christains can't explain it fully. So that my friends is why Joe is agnostic. May all men and women love and care for each other no matter their beliefs. Hurt no one I say and love all. Good Day, Joe.

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

      Self-awareness if not a freak of Evolution, it is a FACT of Evolution. We are matter evolved into consciousness. Science can only deal with the natural world. God, by it's very definition, is a SUPER-natural being and therefore cannot be proven or disproven through Science. It is then only a matter of faith.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • jim

      I don't understand why you bring science into the discussion. There is no science to prove or disprove god, there does not have to be. People can accept the supernatural or not, depending on their comfort level of acceptance without proof – which is the definition of faith.

      Their is, however, great danger in subjugating science to faith. It involves the surrender or reason, and allows people to be manipulated and controlled.

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

      It's always a bummer to only see the crazy segments of a given demographic. But there are plenty of humble and tolerant athiests out there. They just don't pipe up much in areas like this.

      July 20, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Bible Clown

      D, I've been bopping both sides with the Clown Hammer© all day about this. I don't believe, and I don't care if you do, and this is no place to start up with the Big Bang vs Garden of Eden BS. The kid's happy, and that's what matters.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:02 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.