A Bullet Changed My Life
THE finest thing that parents can do for their children is instill in them a knowledge of their Creator and a desire to serve him. A tragedy that befell me when I was only a teenager has helped me to appreciate this truth.
Before describing what happened then—over 20 years ago—let me tell a little about my life as I grew up in the southern United States. It bears directly on how I have been able to cope with overwhelming adversities.
What Shaped My Life
I was born in Birmingham, Alabama—part of the racially segregated Deep South—in January 1955. When I was only eight, a bomb blast not far from our home shattered a church during Sunday-school classes. Terrified black children, many about my own age, ran out screaming; others were bleeding and moaning. Four were dead—murdered by whites.
Such tragedies were not isolated incidents in the South. The following summer three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi. Those were terrifying days of racial disorder that affected all of us.
My mother was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Father became one in 1966. Soon our whole family was sharing with our neighbors our Bible-based hope of a new world of peace. (Psalm 37:29; Proverbs 2:21, 22; Revelation 21:3, 4) Every Saturday during the summers of the late 1960’s, we traveled to untouched territory outside Birmingham to preach. There, people had never heard of Jehovah’s Witnesses or of the Kingdom message we preached. They didn’t even know God’s name, Jehovah. (Psalm 83:18) During those troubled times, I really enjoyed talking to people about Jehovah’s purpose to replace this corrupt old world with an earthly paradise.—Luke 23:43.
Setting a Goal in Life
In December 1969, I symbolized my dedication to Jehovah by water baptism. I prayed to Jehovah and expressed my sincere desire to pursue the full-time ministry as a career. A few weeks later, Father was assigned to help the small congregation located at Adamsville, a few miles from Birmingham. This change of territory intensified my desire to be a pioneer, or full-time minister. At every opportunity through my high school years, I would temporary pioneer, which involved spending at least 75 hours in the ministry each month.
I decided to learn a skill to prepare me for the full-time ministry after I graduated. But in my last year of high school, I faced a challenge. I was among a group of special achievers, and so one day I was taken to a nearby college for some academic tests. Afterward I was called into the counselor’s office. She was excited and happy for me. “You have excelled!” she exclaimed. “You can get into any college you choose!” She wanted me to start filling out scholarship applications right away.
I was upset because I wasn’t prepared for this. I immediately explained my plans to become a full-time minister and to pursue part-time secular work to support myself in the ministry. I even told her that later, as other Witnesses have done, I might be able to serve as a missionary in a foreign country. But it was as if she didn’t hear me. She suggested that I major in science and that if I attended a local college, she would see that I got a job in a science center.
“Confine your religion to weekends, Gloria,” she said, “your parents will still be proud of you.” I felt insulted that she might presume my goal of the full-time ministry was a result of being egged on by my parents. She made me feel pressured, as if I was turning my back on the entire black race by refusing this grand opportunity. However, I stood my ground. After graduation, rather than pursue a college education, I began working part-time as a secretary.
I searched for a pioneer partner but to no avail. When a traveling overseer visited our congregation, I told him about my problem. “You don’t need a partner,” he said. Then he jotted down a schedule whereby I could fulfill my secular work responsibilities and also have sufficient time to pioneer. I felt the schedule was perfect. I was so elated that I set February 1, 1975, as my date to start pioneering.
However, a few days later, on December 20, 1974, while walking home from a convenience store, I was hit by a stray bullet.
At Death’s Door
As I lay on the ground, I could literally see my lifeblood pouring out. I remember thinking that I was going to die. I asked Jehovah to let me live long enough to help Mother understand that such a devastating accident could happen even to a family totally focused on serving Jehovah. Though we were familiar with the Bible text “time and unforeseen occurrence befall them all,” I didn’t think we were prepared to handle such a terrible tragedy.—Ecclesiastes 9:11.
The bullet hit me in the left side of the neck, severing nerves in my spinal cord. My speaking and breathing were affected. I was not expected to live for more than two days. Then they said “two weeks.” But I kept living. As pneumonia set in, I was transferred to a more complicated respirator. In time, my condition stabilized, and plans were made for rehabilitation.
Trials of Rehabilitation
I didn’t feel despondent for the first few weeks. I just felt numb. Everyone at the Spain Rehabilitation Center in Birmingham was kind and worked hard in my behalf. I began to learn from the staff that the doctors expected me to be totally paralyzed, flat on my back, for the rest of my life. I was classified a level C2 quadriplegic, which meant they felt I would be on a respirator for the rest of my life, unable to speak above a whisper.
The doctors had inserted a tracheal tube through which I breathed. Later the pulmonary specialist put in a smaller tube to see if it would allow me to speak. However, the size didn’t make any difference. So they concluded that my inability to talk was due to nerve damage. About that time I began to get depressed, and there was nothing anyone could say to make me feel better. Every kind word hit me like an insult. So I would cry a lot.
I realized that if something impedes your spirituality, two things can help—persistent prayer to Jehovah and throwing yourself into the ministry, telling others about Bible truths. (Proverbs 3:5) Well, praying was easy. I could do that. But how could I, in my condition, become more active in the ministry?
I asked my family to bring copies of the Watchtower and Awake! magazines and other Bible study aids that we were then using in the ministry, such as The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life, True Peace and Security—From What Source?, and Is This Life All There Is? These were placed in different parts of my room. Staff members often looked at me compassionately and asked: “Darling, is there anything I can do for you?”
I would eye a piece of literature, and by mouthing my words, I would ask the person to read to me. I would count the time the person spent reading as my hours in the ministry. To show my gratitude to the person for reading to me, I would often make a gift of the book or magazine. I counted these as my placements. When someone read to me a second time, I counted a return visit. Sharing in this way in the ministry kept me encouraged, as did the heartwarming cards, flowers, and visits of my many Christian brothers and sisters.
After months of rehabilitation, I was able to raise my head only a little. But I was determined to achieve greater mobility. So I asked for more time in physical and occupational therapy. When I requested to be put in a wheelchair, I was told that it was impossible, that I could not hold my head high enough to sit up. I asked them to try anyway.
After an OK was given by the doctors, the therapist in charge helped get me up into a wheelchair. They wrapped me in ace bandages from chest to waist, from thigh to knee, and from knee to foot. I looked like a mummy. This was a precaution to make sure that my blood pressure remained stable and to prevent shock. It worked! Still, I was only allowed to sit up for an hour at a time. But I was sitting—after having been flat on my back for 57 days!
Home at Last!
Finally, after five long months, my tracheal tube was removed, and I was permitted to go home. That was May 1975. Afterward, I would travel back and forth to the rehabilitation center for treatment. As early as the summer of 1975, I began going in the Christian ministry in my wheelchair. I couldn’t do much, but at least I was out there with the friends.
Sometime early in 1976, I was asked to go for reevaluation by the VRS (Vocational Rehabilitation Services), the agency responsible for funding my rehabilitation. I thought I was making progress. I was learning to paint with a brush that I held with my teeth. Using a stick in the same way, I was beginning to type and even write some with a pencil. Since the VRS was paying for most of my treatment, they wanted to find a way for me to get a job and become a productive member of society.
The adviser seemed considerate at first, but he started asking me to try to speak louder. At the time I could only speak slightly above a whisper. Then he asked: “Can’t you sit up straight?”
“Move just one finger,” he said.
When I couldn’t even do that, he slammed his pen down on his desk and said in a frustrated voice: “You are useless!”
I was told to go home and await his call. I understood his dilemma. No patient before me at the Spain Rehabilitation Center had had limitations that were as severe as mine. The cost of the equipment used there is very high, and the person responsible for making decisions didn’t have guidelines regarding what to do with a patient as limited as I. Yet, it hurt to be called useless, since I had already begun to feel that way.
A few days later, I received a call and was told that I no longer was part of the program. I felt abandoned. And that resulted in another bout of depression.
I then thought of the scripture at Psalm 55:22, which says: “Throw your burden upon Jehovah himself, and he himself will sustain you.” One thing I was concerned about was the financial burden on my parents, and I prayed about this.
My depressed condition affected me adversely physically, so during the district convention that summer I wasn’t able to sit up. I listened to the program lying down. What is called the auxiliary pioneer work was introduced at that 1976 convention, and it caught my attention. To auxiliary pioneer requires spending only 60 hours a month in the ministry, an average of just 2 hours a day. I felt I could do that. Later, I asked my sister Elizabeth to help me auxiliary pioneer. She thought I was joking, but when I turned in my application to pioneer in August, she turned one in also.
Elizabeth would get up early and tend to my personal needs. Then we would begin telephone witnessing. This involved calling people on the telephone and conversing with them about the blessings God has in store for people under the rule of his Kingdom. We also wrote letters, especially to persons who needed comfort. On weekends family or friends took me in the door-to-door ministry in my wheelchair. Of course, since I have no use of my limbs, I can do nothing but speak the Kingdom message, quote scriptures, or ask others to read from the Bible.
By the last day of the month, I still needed 6 hours to make my required 60. Elizabeth was not available to help me, so I asked my mother to set the back of my wheelchair so I could sit erect. Then, using a mouth stick, I typed letters for six hours. No bad consequences were suffered! All I know is that I was really tired!
My Prayer Answered
The following week, sitting erect in my wheelchair, I went to the Spain Rehabilitation Center for a checkup. My doctor, who had not seen me since I had been dropped from the program early in the year, was amazed. He couldn’t believe my improvement. “What have you been doing?” he asked. Even before I could finish telling about my ministry, he offered me a job.
His assistant interviewed me and was impressed with what I was doing in the ministry. She asked me to participate in what is called the model patient program. This would match me with another patient that I would help. Referring to our ministry, she said: “This is what your people do anyway, isn’t it?” I was assigned to assist a patient almost as limited as myself.
Somehow news about what I was accomplishing in the ministry with my family’s help reached the VRS. They were so impressed that it was recommended that I be readmitted to the program. This meant our family would receive funding to pay for the special equipment and care I need to carry on my activity. I felt that God had answered my prayers.
My Condition Stabilized
The extent of my physical recovery has been such that I can raise my head, turn it, and sit up. Thankfully, I recovered practically full speaking ability. Using a mouth stick, I can write, type, operate a speakerphone, and paint. Some of my paintings have been entered in mouth-painting exhibitions. I get around in a motorized wheelchair that I drive by chin control. A power lift raises my wheelchair into our van, and with this I can be taken practically anywhere I want to go.
I have had a lot of respiratory problems—pneumonia is a constant threat. Sometimes I require oxygen at night. In 1984, I nearly died as a result of complications from an infection. I was in and out of the hospital several times. But since then my health has improved. Beginning in 1976, I managed to auxiliary pioneer once or twice a year. But I didn’t feel fulfilled. I kept thinking about the plans I had as a teenager that had been cut short by the bullet.
My Goal Realized
On September 1, 1990, I finally joined the ranks of full-time pioneers, thus fulfilling my childhood desire. During the winter months when it is cold, I do witnessing by writing letters and using the speakerphone. But when the weather turns warmer, I also share in the house-to-house ministry. Year-round, I conduct Bible studies from home by using the speakerphone.
I’m eagerly looking forward to a wonderful future in the Paradise earth when Christ Jesus and Jehovah God deliver me from this wheelchair. Every day I thank Jehovah for his promises of vibrant health and the ability to “climb up just as a stag does.” (Isaiah 35:6) I’m going to run for as long as it takes me to make up for lost time, and then I’m going to learn how to ride a horse.
Awaiting that time, I have indescribable joy even now in being one of Jehovah’s happy people and in having a full share in the ministry.—As told by Gloria Williams.
[Pictures on page 15]
My Christian ministry—going from house to house, witnessing by telephone, writing letters
[Picture on page 16]
My paintings have been entered in mouth-painting exhibitions