“Laughing Through the Pain”
It is not very hard to recognize William, the white hair and white goatee that gives him an air of a great blues singer. He loves to laugh and sing, especially “Amazing Grace” which is his favorite hymn. But up close you see the deep lines in his face and dark eyes that seem to tell the story that has come from being dragged through life.
He was born on April 21, 1944 in Calera, Alabama, the baby of eight children. His family was one of many tenant farmers on the red clay roads of Chilton and Shelby counties. Each family enduring the long hours and bleeding hands that came with picking cotton for the white farmers. He and his siblings were able to go to school but school became secondary, there were too many mouths to feed and not enough money. One of William's earliest memories was watching his older siblings who by the time they reached their late teens blew out of Calera never looking back. And the one goal that young William had was to flee Calera and never pick cotton again.
His chance finally came when he was sixteen, when a friend of the family said his car was packed and he was headed to New York. It was William's ticket out, no more picking cotton, no more blistering days bent over or bleeding hands doing the work of the white families in his community. The idea of going to New York was like a dream. But New York would turn out to be a nightmare and begin years of pain and struggling that would change William's life forever.
Arriving in New York William had the good fortune to have an older sister and brother, both whom lived in the Bronx. His sister would take him in and William hit the streets looking for work. And New York in the 1960's was an amazing place to be. It was he said, “music on every corner, people from every part of the world and the smell of the food that each culture brought was like heaven.” But it was the music that excited him the most, he would say, “ it was as if the music came out of the sidewalks and walls of the neighborhood, it was everywhere.”
He had only been in New York for about six weeks when in one night everything would change. He had eaten a good meal, but apparently the meat part of the meal was bad and William began to get sicker and sicker as the night went on. The illness became so bad that his sister would call their brother asking him to take William to the hospital. Strangely William was not driven to the nearest hospital, but to Bellevue, which is a hospital for individuals who are mentally ill. Even to this day William doesn't understand why his brother took him to Bellevue and why they were willing to keep him for several weeks.
Once released from the hospital he decided to return to Alabama and traveled by bus arriving in Montgomery. He stated, “I found a job in Montgomery, but I constantly felt exhausted and weak, so I finally decided to go home to live with my mom.” But the exhaustion continued and he felt tired each day and it was finally decided that William needed a time of rest in a rest home. But instead of being sent to a place of rest, he was sent to Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa, a place his mother came to understand was the place he needed to be. For the next six months suffered under continual electric shock therapy and today he feels that his difficulty in remembering and his tendency to slur his words are the result of this treatment.
The last fifty years has flown by and for William there has been struggles. There has been years on the streets of Birmingham and struggles with with issues around his head and scalp and physical challenges, including deafness. And you will see the memory lapse as he reaches into the air with his right hand as if he is trying to grasp the answer and then the words come and are full of life. All part of being dragged through life and sadly he has had little support from family or a system that sees the homeless as a nuisance and inconvenience. But he has been clean for decades. He presently has a roof over his head. But most importantly he loves God and loves to sing to the Lord and he has that infectious laugh that says lets live life to the fullest. And for us at the Church of the Reconciler we are treated to this gentle giant and we are blessed.