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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. William Demuth

    AH the south!

    We northerners had to stomp them once for their ridiculous belief systems, and I look forward to us doing it again.

    Hows about you yahoo's coming into the 21st century, and leaving your crazy religions in the Bronze Age where they belong?

    July 20, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • jimmymax

      And how is a church "black", or "white" for that matter? Are whites normally excluded from attending? Why does CNN call it a "black church"?

      July 20, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • Rob

      I am thinking it's all about the paint used on the exterior...

      July 20, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • zxasxz46

      Oh Dippy, your two sentences are so full of holes I don't know where to begin – other than to say that most of your life you have been ruled by 'southerners'. Who won?

      July 20, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • Dani

      @jimmy. LOL! If the congregants are all black and baptist, society refers to it as a "black church." It's not referred to as a Baptist church unless the members are mostly white southerners. Let's see, we have the Catholic church, the Mormon church, the Episcopalian church, the Protestant church and, oh yeah, the Black church! Bigotry and alienation in religion – that's why I think it's all B.S.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
  2. Lost Sheep

    If singing in a church makes someone happy, why worry? Just as Christians have no right to enforce their religion on the unwilling, the unwilling have no right to enforce their lack of religion on those that believe.

    And before you go mentioning some Christian who has hurt you or judged you in some way in defense of your belief, please think to take the higher road. Two wrongs do not make a right.

    I'm not a fan of modern-day christianity and the close-minded nature of some of its followers, but if this kid has found some peace with his lot in life due to his relationship with this church, I'm not going to hate on it.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  3. Steve

    Usually people handicapped in this manner end up in stories on Fox News.

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

      which handicap are you referring to? The cerebral palsy or the being religious part?

      July 20, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  4. Bible Clown

    They are doing something nice for a non-verbal handicapped man who probably doesn't put much money in the plate. Accept the story in that spirit, and go bash the believers on another story. Like I'm doing . . .

    July 20, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  5. Human Being

    All these people with negative posts really need to take a good long look in the mirror!

    July 20, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • Rob

      ummm....we pay attention to reality instead of burying our heads in our @$$es....no need for mirrors

      July 20, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • jimmymax

      I take it that by "negative", you mean either disagreeing with the story's point of view, or your own point of view. How terrible!

      July 20, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  6. Iceman

    Good news: In the near future, John will see his brother–in-law alive again; also, his son Tony (that died in an accident on the way home from work) and, Lucas will walk on his feet not his knees and will be able to speak without the use of a computer. See John 5:28,29; Isaiah 35:5,6

    July 20, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • sleepytime

      How do you know? Are you god?

      July 20, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Yup, and monkies will fly outta my but

      July 20, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • jimmymax

      Good news: One day Iceman will kick the bucket and turn into rotting slop and that will be the complete end of him.

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

      sleepytime
      william demuth
      Interesting that the Bible and God you two hate continue to give you opportunity to experience the joy God has prepared for those who beleive in Jesus. Do you not wonder at all why you slam the door on God, His Word and His people? Why is that you are drawn to God, His word and His people ?

      July 20, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • fred

      jimmymax,
      Interesting you used the term good news. The Gospel means good news. Now look close at your words and know this is what is in your heart. Is this who jimmymax is, is this the message you want to put out.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • Rob

      people aren't "drawn" to "god"....we have idiots trying to shove their stupid evil religion down our throats...

      July 20, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • Rob

      fred, you are an utter re-tard....you are using circular logic to justify your stupidity....you are supposed to outgrow imaginary friends....

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

      Rob,
      So you find being kind and doing good is evil? Time to reboot.
      Also, you seem oversensitive and think someone is shoving religion down your throat. Well we are only to reveal the gospel to you and you make your own choice. God will not force himself on you.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Frogist

      @fred re: jimmymax.
      Fred has a point. I realize jimmymax wants to be a realist, but using emotive words like "rotting slop" kinda shows that he isn't being very clinical about death either. And as a response to Iceman's hopeful picture, jimmy's declaration seems bitter and ugly. I think that does a disservice to the non-believer's point of view since it is not all about focusing on "rotting slop", but recognizing there is beauty in this life that needs attention before and above any unproven after-life alternative. Fair call, fred.

      July 20, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
  7. J-Pap

    If there was a GOD, one only GOD, it wouldn't make people suffer with disease and especially wouldn't let people worship it. This is unless you want to worship a GOD with a huge ego who could care less about human kind.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • kmac

      How bout letting your "god" know that there are 4 million starving people in Somalia right now.....maybe he can take care of them.......fat chance.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • fred

      This starvation you refer to is allowed by man and often caused by man. We have a short span on earth and will be held accountable for what we have done. Those starved to death served a purpose as did those who did not feed them. Jesus said I do not know you because you did not feed those that were hungry or give water to those that were thirsty. Now the Bible is clear and you are repaid many times over for what you have done with your life and those starved ones will be sitting pretty for eternity.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  8. driddle

    The guy in the picture looks like a "special" person about to fling some poo. What a beautiful story backwardness.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  9. Buttery_comp

    You are a sick person... Don't go seek help... just go lay in your grave... with hate like that your half dead anyway!

    July 20, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  10. Jonathan

    You're an a**hole, David Stone. You were the insignificant bully on the playground as a child.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  11. Dino B

    I read this and it me feel good. This young man has a tragic disability but he is happy and he found his place. We need more positive stuff like this in the world. But of course all I read are cynical, negative comments bashing religion. I'm not the most religious person in the world but I appreciate the good work that many churches do. If people are doing some good, why complain?! It's because of all the shallow narcissists, the vain, empty idiots out there who bash others for their Christian beliefs! But I know for a fact that they are cowards, because they would NEVER walk up to a Muslim or an Orthodox Jew and tell them what they really think of their religion. Because all the haters and naysayers are COWARDS.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • sleepytime

      What a hateful, negative comment from someone complaining about hateful, negative comments.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Laughing

      Interesting you think so, I can personally say I have had some choice words with a Hassid because I wouldn't put on his stupid tefilin, I've also had some more words with other believers (both on this blog and in real life) because they've wanted me to ascribe to their belief system and I wouldn't. The muslim thing is a little different considering when I was in the middle east, just being semitic looking made them want to hurt me, but the other deal is even though once you're muslim and you can't convert to anything else, Muslim people remain to this day the only people that haven't tried to convert me. Why should I be angry at a person who practices their beliefs without imposing it on me in anyway? Then again you can rage against the 5% of the population who finally are getting legs and a voice and call them cowards because usually when they speak up (especially in the olden days) they would actually get physcially hurt.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      I am very possibly the most unreligious person in the ENTIRE UNIVERSE, and I'm ok with people believing weird stuff. I know pagans and Buddhists and polyamorists and pirates, even Goths and Vandals, as well as Christians. This country is all about freedom.

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

      Dino, realists ridicule the religious people for the same reason a teach puts a big red X next to a wrong answer...

      July 20, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  12. Human Being

    This is a wonderful story. It may be interpreted in different ways. It is nice to see people who come together and help each other in their time of need & sorrow. We need more articles like this. It's not about the ethnic groups, or how we pray, its coming together as people to help one another because we are human!!!

    July 20, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  13. G-Man

    White or black, able-bodied or handicap, just another story about lunatic religious fanatics praying to some pie-in-the-sky deity.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  14. Dennis

    Great story! A republican in that environment! What?

    July 20, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • Bruce

      Srsly... if Lucas wants to find a Republican girlfriend, he shouldn't be wasting time in a church like that LOL!

      July 20, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  15. Dan

    CNN really needs to get rid of the make believe section of their website.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • Rob

      They could even write an article about getting rid of it as the first article in the new section called "Good News"

      July 20, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • Shawn

      This video has less to do with religion than with acceptance. And I feel sorry for your inability to grasp that. Many people gain happiness and purpose through religion. Its important to know when to criticise and when to appreciate. It is your right to attack religion; however when you attack religion on a post about a handicapped man finding acceptance you only hurt your cause. Making yourself and your message look hateful.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  16. Buttery_comp

    My, my, my,... I haven't finished watching the video of this and I'm so excited... This is a beautiful story and it makes my day. It's so very difficult to rear a child that is disabled to this extent and My heart is full of joy that he has this moment in his life... Society can take a lesson from these good people.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  17. Actually...

    God IS real. But it doesn't have a name, not God, Allah, or Yahweh. Although, organized religions are usually not a good thing.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • Frank

      I call mine Pupshaw.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Actually...

      You say "God (is) real."

      I continually trying to find someone that has some kind of a reasonable answer as to how they 'know' that God exists.

      How do you know exactly and specifically that God is real...?

      Regards,

      Peace...*

      July 20, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      Peace, I think your leg just came off in his hand. He's joking.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • Actually...

      I've found that is real god through experience. Yes, at times I have doubts, but so does everyone. I suppose, as sad as it is, a way to prove that there is a god is through the fact that demonic possessions are real. But you have to find your god personally.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • Frank

      Mine had a sign saying FREE TO GOOD HOME.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • zxasxz46

      Dear Peace to all: Look in the mirror

      July 20, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • I = rubber, U = glue

      @ Actually

      I didn't know that demonic possesions were a fact. Are you considering the movie "The Exorcist" your facts? Could you tell me what the last "proven" case of demonic possession was? I just don't see this in the news very often.

      I am also surprised that possession is the "fact" you chose to prove God exists. Let me get this straight, A possession where an "All-powerful" God allows a demon to enter a persons soul in order to work in mysterious ways. I'm lost, could you help me out with your reasoning on this.

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

      There is a double standard here. So many believers are decrying those who dare to criticize religion in this story's comments. But what of the believers who use Lucas' story to proselytize and declare their god is real as 'Actually' has? Aren't they in the same boat? 'Actually' mentions NOTHING about Lucas or John or their story. He just decided this was a good time to declare his God is real. When you criticise the non-belivers for using this boy's story as a place to promote their ideals, please do the same for the believers.

      July 20, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  18. ian

    these people frighten me so completely as an american, i would rather find satan. what a truly scary bunch of people.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  19. Bruce

    Let's do that, Lee. Go and find the "Church of Zeus" that has loving people who open their hearts and lives to Lucas and in so doing make the world a better place.

    That is, go and find an actual and factual group of people with that label. You know, reality. You say you're a fan of it.

    Yay for experimenting!

    July 20, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  20. travelin man

    Speaking as a fellow white man...you have to be out of your mind with hate. I don't know what has happened to you in your life to make you so. Turn away from it, man. Open your heart.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:03 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.