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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. kgriggs0207

    Please ignore the negative comments from the trolls who are out en masse on this story.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Rob

      your abuse has been reported....just because people disagree with your ignorance, it doesn't make them trolls....

      July 20, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      Rob, you are a troll. Also I think you may possibly have brain damage.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • Wow!

      Bible Clown, this is a religious blog, and you are calling him a troll? Don't you have a blog of your own?

      July 20, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  2. Ian

    too bad he wont as hell is not real.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  3. Todd

    Rob, that's a mirror. Is your last name Banks?

    July 20, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  4. Neal

    With all that going on. This
    is what headlines CNN.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • Indeed...

      ....WHY is this the top story at CNN? NOTHING from "The Fairy Tale Blog" should ever headline a major news website...CNN minus 1....back over to bbc.com, where they report on the real world.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • clevercandi

      Neal,

      You DO realize you are on the "Belief Blog" section of CNN.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      candi, it IS the featured story right now.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • john

      indeed. if these stories didnt exist youd have nothing to rage against. be happy you have something to do

      July 20, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  5. Bruce

    Excellent story of redemption and purpose in life. My hope is that Lucas will find total peace and joy as he comes to know God personally.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Barnacle Bill

      Can you know Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck personally?

      July 20, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  6. Iceman

    @William Demuth
    Yes, God is aware:

    Proverbs 15:5 reads "The eyes of Jehovah are in every place, keeping watch upon the bad ones and the good ones." Also,
    2 Chronicles 16:9: "For as regards Jehovah, his eyes are roving about throughout the earth to show his strength in behalf of those whose heart is complete toward him." So it will be all good for those who are "good." =)

    July 20, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • David Stone

      And what did that verse read before it was translated into English? And what did it read before the other ten revisions it went through in the last 3000 years? You realize it was written down after hearing a story that was passed down and altered over time as well right? Do you ever consider these things?

      July 20, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • Rob

      20 people in the same room can't pass a single sentence around a room playing telephone and these nutjobs think that these stories somehow were accurately communicated with NO alteration for language differences, or perception differences for hundreds of years....I suppose they all thought EXACTLY alike....

      July 20, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  7. Brad

    Your the only idiot. I'm an athiest, I believe religion is a lie, however, this person found something that gave him meaning. Right or wrong, it doesn't make him stupid or wrong, it's just his passion. If that carries him through life, if that makes life worth living, then who the hell are you to say anything?

    July 20, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      Right, if he's happy and his life has improved, and he's not out passing laws to try to make me worship his book or a fish or spaghetti or something, who cares?

      July 20, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Wow!

      Bible Clown, what laws are you talking about? I didn't know there were laws in place that said you have to be a Christian.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  8. Martin

    What a wonderful and inspiring story. Unlike most of the stories in the daily media, this one is uplifiting and shows the power of change and second chances. Good job CNN.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Rob

      actually, it shows delusion...

      July 20, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • David Stone

      What an odd story, of odd people who roll around on the floor "speaking in tongues" (God speaking through them, of course). Bizarre, and just pathetic.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • john

      rob, your belief can be an illusion as well. in fact, many theorists have said our very existence may be an illusion. why are you so hateful?

      July 20, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Jay

      John, he said delusion, not illusion.

      July 21, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  9. Bible Clown

    Fiction? It's about real people, and has human interest. An unhappy guy has some happiness now. That's the point, not what brand of god-bothering is best.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  10. mtnmedic

    "There IS a God. And he's a gag-writer!"

    July 20, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  11. The ONE true GOD

    18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

    21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

    24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • David Stone

      You do realize, as soon as someone sees you quoting bible verses, they ignore your post right? I got about three to four words in and am no responding to tell you this so you and others like you won't waste your time. Go quote your verses to your fellow church members OK?

      July 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • Ian

      LOL

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

      go figure...rather than post an original thought, he just cuts and pastes....typical of a religious person...no thought, just follow what you are told...stupid sheep

      July 20, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • The ONE true GOD

      I would like to thank all of you for proving the above scripture as 100% accurate by your foolishness. have a blessed day.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Rob

      whoa...did the english language just change or did you fail to comprehend how stupid you actually are?

      July 20, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. " That's a lie, and not very pleasing to your deity. Praising Him by saying nasty things about your fellow man is not going to be a credit to your account, and if you think intolerance is the way to comment on a story about a sad guy getting to be happy, you are no Christian. Time for me to bop you with the Clown Hammer©?

      July 20, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  12. Will

    For those who think these people are crazy, frightening, or fanatic religious lunitics, I hope they realize what they are saying. They are saying that they do not care that a disabled young man is trying to make peace in this world and express his feelings. Does that make him a crazy religious fanatic that is so scary, u would rather find satan. Honestly, hating on these people will not benefit anybody. I do not practice their religion by any means, but it doesn't look like they are sacrificing some goat or baby that WOULD be scary. Please be happy for the boy and the people that welcome him.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Todd

      Maybe I'm dirty, and maybe I smoke a lot of dope, but it ain't like I'm going on tv and tearing up pictures of the Pope. I may get wild, I may get drunk, but it ain't like I got a bunch of bodies in my trunk. I think I'm an alright guy.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • A free man

      sacrificing a goat? That's not scary, and is commonly done in many religions. Sacrificing a baby? That's messed up, and hopefully occurs very rarely nowadays.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  13. ReligionIs4Dolts

    So THAT is where god has been hiding? In the MS Delta? No wonder I've never seen him.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  14. bluemax77

    Didn’t know he lived anywhere near Mississippi....

    July 20, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  15. Iceman

    @William Demuth
    Yes, the Bible foretells the future.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • William Demuth

      You sir, are clueless

      I might explain the idea of free will, but you wont get it.

      If the end is preordained, than do WHATEVER you please because WHATEVER you do is Gods will.

      Same malarcky for centuries!

      Ity is absurd!

      July 20, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • GodPot

      And his faithful servants who have been indoctrinated in the prophecy will work as hard as they can to make it come true. It's to bad that so many "Christians" think their God is telling them to work directly for man's downfall since they believe that man cannot direct his own step, so they purposely attempt to trip the rest of us.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
  16. JF

    I agree with others that there are a lot of trolls on the site today. As an atheist I thought this was a good story. Lucas enjoys the social interactions with the members of his church. The church members obviously love and care for him.

    "God doesn't exist or god doesn't care. If god did exist or cared then Lucas wouldn't have cerbral palsy" blah blah blah who cares?

    Lucas is happy spending time with others at church and that is probably a healthy activity for him. I'm sure he is an inspiration to others. Good for them.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  17. Mark

    It's sad that people who hate the idea of God have to come on to a belief blog and tease and put down people who love God. I don't care if your black, white, green, brown don't believe in God, believe in God, believe in aliens, or ANYTHING!! We are all humans who have feelings and should love eachother no matter what and not try and bash others for their beliefs or non beliefs. This is a great story that shows how people can help eachother and show love to eachother no matter what they did or looked like. Like they say "Can't we all just get along?"

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

      what kind of BS is that? we are animals...some people are stupid and pray to imaginary beings....there is no natural code of conduct requiring us to think you are somehow better than just another moron...you want respect, EARN it...one way to do that is to keep your religious beliefs to yourself instead of inflicting that crap on everyone around you....

      July 20, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Mark

      Your faith harmed BILLIONS.

      This is just payback.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Mark

      You are right Rob nobody is better than another and people do have to show respect to get respect, but you don't have to earn love from me cause I love everybody and everybody deserves to be loved.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • Mark

      My faith hasn't hurt anyone Wiliam because my faith is my own and my relationship with God is my own, and I don't believe everything in the bible because the bible was written by man and man has flaws. Plus William that is like saying it was my fault that slavery happend because I am white and since white people did it then all whites must pay for it. Everybody is their own person and has free will so you can't generalize a whole group.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • Rick

      Mark, from reading the other comments on here, there unfortunately seems to be a lot of angry people.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Mark is a Christian who believes in free will?

      You admt the Bible is propoganda!

      We are making progress!

      In time you will reject it all.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  18. Claire

    Good thinking to come to the religious section of CNN if you are atheist or not christian. Go troll somewhere else.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • William Demuth

      WRONG

      We need to purify the indoctrinated. It is for their own good.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • GodPot

      I see it say's Belief Blog at the top, where does it say Christian? I happen to believe there is no proof anyone's God's exist, therefore all religions are equal.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Rob

      what's is this crap about non-christians shouldn't be here? f'king BIGOT!

      July 20, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Fidei Coticula Crux

      @ William Demuth, “We need to purify the indoctrinated.”

      – And replace it with what? Your example of intolerance.

      July 20, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Fidei Coticula Crux

      I am more than intoleant I am militant.

      Churches are corrupt organizations that exploit and harm BILLIONS.

      They need to go by any and all means.

      July 20, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  19. Doug Ericson

    I thought the photo was an ad for the Americas got Talent Show. Doug.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  20. Really.....

    It's doesn't matter what goes on in the church. The point of the article is that Lucas is happy. Money needs to be collected to buy windows for the church in Lucas' name.

    July 20, 2011 at 12:29 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.