Just before becoming the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, Reverend Dr. William J. Barber developed ankylosing spondylitis, an extreme and very painful form of arthritis. In this excerpt from The Third Reconstruction, he recounts the three months he spent in the hospital, when, having reached the depths of despair, he received an inspiring visit from an “amputee angel,” and eventually learned firsthand the incredible power of people standing together.
I learned a great deal in Martinsville about moral leadership—more than I realized at the time. But I did not know what was next for me when our family moved back to North Carolina in 1991. Preaching had helped me find a voice of moral dissent, but my father had shown me long before that you don’t have to pastor a church to preach. I was at the core of my being a preacher, but I knew that preaching did not have to be my job. In fact, I had begun to think I might be more effective if it weren’t. The pastoral work of managing a tight-knit community was not without its challenges and frustrations, which inevitably took time and energy away from public justice work. One of my aunts kept telling me I needed to stop trying to be a lawyer. I wasn’t sure what I was trying to become, but I knew I wasn’t in a hurry to find another church.
At the invitation of some friends, I preached at a youth event in the eastern part of the state. After the program ended that evening, Andrea Harris introduced herself to me as an old friend of my father’s. She asked what I was doing, and I told her I wasn’t sure yet. “Why don’t you come work for me?” she asked.
Andrea had started the North Carolina Institute for Minority Economic Development to combat wealth inequality, which she knew to be rooted in America’s history of slavery. She understood the work of creating business opportunities for people of color as freedom work. I went to work for Andrea and learned about strategies for economic empowerment and business development. But after just a few months on the job, I got a call from Carolyn Coleman.
Ms. Coleman explained to me that Mr. E. V. Wilkins—the same man who had called my father back to North Carolina a quarter century earlier—had recommended me to chair Governor Jim Hunt’s Human Relations Commission. I accepted the appointment and began a crash course in the inner workings of state government. I traveled North Carolina from “Manteo to Murphy,” as we say, following up on concerns about employment discrimination and fair housing. I got to know firsthand the history of hate groups in our state and the ways they continued to intimidate minorities, especially in rural communities. One of the first cases I investigated—and the first one we won—was that of a white woman who was refused housing by a landlord because of her friendship with black people. I got the first death threat of my life on that job. It was, in many ways, a trial by fire.
But working with the Human Relations Commission helped me to learn something important about the work I’m called to do. It did not matter whether I was someone’s pastor or their representative to the governor; whatever my role, I heard the same cry. Vulnerable people could be ignored, used, pushed to the side, or intimidated. Still, something in their humanity cried out for justice. And I could not ignore it. However I made a living, I knew I would make a life as my grandmamma and my father had before me here in North Carolina. By my late twenties, my vocation was clear: I was called to stand for justice.
Meanwhile, churches kept calling me to preach. In the summer of 1993, I got a call from Greenleaf Christian Church, a small congregation in my denomination down in Goldsboro, North Carolina. I was traveling regularly for my state work at the time, but we were living an hour away from Goldsboro in Durham, where my wife worked as a nurse at the hospital. Greenleaf was looking for a pastor, but I told them I wasn’t interested. I had a job I was happy with. I said I would be glad to come down and preach one Sunday while they looked for someone else, but they didn’t need to evaluate me as a candidate. I was just there to preach. After I preached my first service at Greenleaf, one of the old mothers of the church came up and said, “Boy, you need to hush ’cause that’s not what the Lord says. You need to come down here and be our pastor.”
I resisted. Durham is centrally located in North Carolina, and our place there seemed to make sense. We were raising a young family as two working parents, trying to make ends meet and keep everyone’s schedules together. It didn’t feel like a time to uproot. It also didn’t make any sense to leave a city for an impoverished community down east where we didn’t really know anyone. I had a good job that paid me to do the work I felt called to do. I tried to just smile at the church ladies and say, “Don’t ya’ll worry. God will send you the right pastor.” But it turned out they were right. The pastor God was sending them was me. In mid-July of that summer, I told Greenleaf that it didn’t make any sense to me, but I was going to yield to the Spirit and test the Lord’s leading for a few months as their pastor.
A fortnight later, on the first Friday in August, I woke up at home and could not move. At first, it was hard for me to even conceive of what was happening. I tried to bend my knees, but nothing happened. I thought I’d roll over, but I couldn’t lift either side of my body off the bed. When I tried to lift my leg, it lay on the bed like a dead weight. I called out to my wife, bewildered by my sudden immobility.
An ambulance came and drove me to the hospital, where I would spend the next three months. Immediately the doctors starting doing scans and running tests, but no one could explain what was happening. All of my life I had been active. I played football in high school, stayed on my feet day and night through college, and lived life on the go as a pastor and chair of the Human Relations Commission. But lying on my back in that hospital bed, I turned thirty thinking I might never walk again.
Eventually I was diagnosed with a tremendous case of ankylosing spondylitis, an extreme form of arthritis that fuses your bones in place. My neck, the base of my spine, and my hips had all locked up simultaneously. There was no cure for this condition, but the doctors said that I might regain some mobility with intensive physical therapy. They started wheeling me down to the gym every day, but it felt like a knife was stabbing me in the hip whenever they bent my legs.
I took a lot of pain meds during those months. I hurt so bad when I was in the hospital that if someone had come in there and told me they had something that would make it all go away, I don’t know if I could have said no. It was just that bad. I often tell people this is why I have compassion for folks who are hooked on drugs. It’s hard to explain the despair that intense chronic pain can cause, making it impossible to think of anything else. I slipped into a depression and spent many long nights just crying in my bed.
But all through that time, people from the church kept visiting during the day. I could hardly talk to them, but they would say, “We want you to come back.” I’d say, “Look at me. I can’t come back as a cripple.” But they would say, “We think you have something to offer. Just hold on.”
That was a time in my life when it felt like something bad happened every summer. My father had died in the summer. Rebecca’s mother died in the summer. Our young daughter had to have brain surgery one summer. The next summer, our son had a vitamin deficiency problem. Then this: at the end of that summer, I was told I’d never walk again. I appreciated the encouragement from the church and my family, but I simply couldn’t believe that things would get better. The pain was too much to ignore. The thought of living the rest of my life that way was too much to bear. I didn’t have it in me to keep going.
One night as I lay moaning under the weight of despair, a lady I didn’t know came into my room in a wheelchair. She said, “I heard you were in here. I’ve come to pray for you.” I said, “Ma’am, I really don’t want to talk to you right now.” But she said, “Well, you can’t get out of bed. So I’m gonna talk, and you gonna listen.”
She said to me, “Look, they’ve taken both my legs off. Now I’m goin’ on home to get me some new legs, but God’s not through with you yet. You remember that: you’ve got some work left to do.” She bowed her head and prayed for me, even though I wouldn’t reach out and hold her hand. When she had finished praying, she said goodbye and wheeled herself out of the room.
The next morning I called the nurse in and asked her if she could get my mother to come play some hymns on the piano in the hospital lobby. I said, “If I can get down there and sing with her, I think I can get myself together.” Then I said, “I’d also like to get that double amputee who was in here last night to come down with me.” But the nurse looked at me and said, “We don’t have an amputee on this floor.” I said, “Yes you do. She came in here last night and prayed for me.” But nobody ever could find that woman. I call her my amputee angel.
After that experience, I started to get up out of my hospital bed. I still had a lot of pain, but I wasn’t trying to do it alone anymore. My angel had called me out of myself, and I started to learn how to live with help from others. My therapists helped me learn how to get up on a walker, and my wife and my kids helped me around the house. All the while, the church told me, “We can figure out how to make this work, pastor.” They sent drivers to pick me up and I went in and out of every pulpit I preached from on a walker.
I would go places on my walker and people in the audience would look around and ask, “When is the speaker coming?” They just assumed a guy in my shape couldn’t be the preacher. But I started getting letters from folks who heard me preach. They would say, “Our marriage was about to fall apart, but when we saw you press your way on that walker, we said, ‘We can make this marriage work.’”
I started my ministry at Greenleaf on that walker. We moved to Goldsboro and planted ourselves in that community, knowing that I couldn’t even care for myself without help. People kept saying to me, “You can’t do all this. You’re going to kill yourself.” But I just said, “I know I can’t do it. But we can build community to do this. I don’t need to do it if we can get together.”
When I look at the Scriptures, it seems like everybody God chose to use had some major disfigurement or disability. Isaiah describes the “suffering servant.” Moses, whom God called to be the spokesperson for Israel at Pharaoh’s court, said he couldn’t speak without stuttering. Paul the Apostle writes about a “thorn in his flesh”—something he just couldn’t shake. But somehow, Paul wrote, God’s “power is made perfect in weakness.” When I started pastoring at Greenleaf, I would walk to the pulpit on my walker, then swing it around behind me while I preached. That went on for twelve years. Whenever I was in the pulpit, I never felt the pain.
I was on that walker for twelve years, but some lessons in life are so important that you can’t learn them in a semester and put them down on a final exam. Some lessons are so important you have to get them down into your bones. I think that’s what was happening to me all those years. I was learning the awesome power of what happens when people come together. And I was learning it in the church.
About the Authors
The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II is president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, pastor at Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and founder of Repairers of the Breach. He is the author of Forward Together: A Moral Message for the Nation. Follow him on Twitter at @.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is cofounder of the Rutba House for the formerly homeless and director of the School for Conversion. His books include Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (with Shane Claiborne) and The New Monasticism. Follow him on Twitter at @.