“Will you pray with us?” Rev. Randall Mullins asked those gathered for worship last Sunday morning at First Congregational Church.
First Congo — as everyone calls it — is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, a denomination that proclaims, “God is still speaking.” Nearly everyone seated in First Congo’s spacious and colorful sanctuary was wondering whether and how Randall would still be speaking.
A few months earlier, surgeons at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center removed the lanky 64-year-old
preacher’s cancerous tongue. They also took out his hyoid bone, a tiny horseshoe-shape bone that allows humans to articulate a wide variety of sounds.
Sunday morning’s lesson was the story from the Gospel of John of the man born blind. Randall spoke as if he were a man born deaf, his voice struggling to shape and sound out distinct letters and words.
“Loving God. We sense all the ways you are present with us today,” Randall continued as the remainder of his short prayer faded into mumbled sounds.
Randall’s wife, Sharon Pavelda, stood next to him at the pulpit. She offered her own version of the prayer, then began to recount briefly their recent history.
How in 2011, Randall began losing sensation in and control of his tongue.
How for weeks physicians tried to determine whether Randall had a rapidly progressive, invariably fatal neurological disease known as ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
How a little more than a year ago, on June 27, physicians finally ruled out ALS and decided Randall had something called 12th nerve palsy, or paralysis of the tongue, which is not fatal.
How relieved they felt and blessed they were to get the good news.
How besieged they felt and depressed they were to find out exactly six months later, on Dec. 27, that Randall had a rare form of tongue cancer.
As Sharon spoke, Randall ambled over to a table in the center of the sanctuary. He removed his stole and his jacket. Then he put on the bright yellow bathrobe he bought last winter to take to Houston. It soon became known as the Yellow Robe of Texas.
“I confess to you,” Sharon told the congregation, “that I was a little horrified when Randall bypassed the more conservative pinstriped ones and went straight to that yellow bathrobe. But it was the perfect choice. It didn’t take long before we heard cries of, ‘Hey, Big Bird,’ and, ‘Hello there, sunshine.’ Which of course lifted his spirits.”
Randall and Sharon lifted everyone’s spirit Sunday, the 11th Sunday of Pentecost, the feast that commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the followers of Jesus.
“Their sermon combined so beautifully their much- practiced and well-honed presentation skills with their powerful connection to the free-flowing gifts of the Holy Spirit, whose presence they helped to be palpable there in the room,” said Dr. Jeanne Jemison, who spent time with Randall and Sharon in Houston.
“It felt to me like we were all part of a moment that will be talked about and cherished for generations,” said Dr. Lucas Trautman, who was there with his wife and daughters.
Randall, an ordained United Church of Christ minister who grew up in Mississippi, and Sharon, a drama therapist who grew up in Ohio, met in the Pacific Northwest and were married 10 years ago.
They moved to Memphis in 2010 to start a new ministry but have felt ministered to ever since.
“We let ourselves be touched by God, and especially by other people,” Randall told the congregation Sunday. “We don’t have to do it alone. We are in this together.”
Randall and Sharon were in it together last Sunday as they spoke about vulnerability and hospitality, grief and grace.
They didn’t focus on the nine-hour total glossectomy — complete removal of the tongue — Randall underwent on March 7. Or the skin graft from Randall’s forearm that was used to cover the hole where his tongue used to be. Or the two subsequent emergency surgeries performed to address post-surgical infections in his ear-to-ear scar.
They didn’t linger on the 31 radiation treatments (Sharon called them ‘radiance’ treatments) Randall endured. Or the plastic mesh mask that was placed over Randall’s head and neck and bolted to the X-ray table to keep his head still while he was blasted with radiation. Or the protective mouth guard he had to wear during the treatments that made him feel like he was choking to death.
They didn’t dwell on the weeks of burning pain Randall suffered, or the mental and physical exhaustion they both withstood, or the emotional and, at times, spiritual depression they both encountered along the way.
“If we got too distracted with the cancer and finding the cure, we might not be able to see,” Sharon told the congregation. “We’d be as blind as the man in the story. We couldn’t see the works of God that are being revealed every day for all of us.”
So instead of the cancer, they talked about the Hispanic woman Randall met in an elevator one day at MD Anderson. She was in a wheelchair. Randall complemented her blanket, woven with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Catholic icon of the Virgin Mary.
“I said to her, ‘What a beautiful blanket,’” Randall recalled.
“She said, ‘Oh, you know Mother?’”
“I said, ‘Oh, yes, I know Mother.’ Then she gave me her rosary. She just handed it to me,” Randall said as he pulled the rosary off the table and held it up for all to see.
“God with us in a 37-second elevator encounter,” Sharon said.
They talked about the ER nurse who was wearing a pair of neon green socks. Randall noticed and told her how much he loved her socks. Just as Randall was about to be wheeled to the operating room, the nurse took off her socks and put them on Randall’s feet. They both wept. Randall wore the socks through surgery.
“There’s just something about the joy of socks,” Sharon said as Randall joyously put the socks on his hands for all to see.
They talked about the clown noses Randall bought at the Fun Shop on Highland two days before they went to Houston. Every now and then he’d put one on as he walked around the hospital in the Yellow Robe of Texas.
They talked about buying 47 pairs of brightly colored socks, stuffing each pair into a large plastic egg, and handing them out on Easter to people who had helped care for them at the hospital.
They talked about celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary on May 25 at the hospital. Randall wore a special pair of bright (what else?) tie-dyed long johns for the occasion and made a sign that said, “11 years of silliness.”
They talked about the community they found in Houston. Doctors and nurses and hospital workers who showed them compassion. Fellow patients in pajamas “carrying IV poles and standing in line at the in-house Starbucks” who showed them courage.
They talked about the community they have found in Memphis since they moved here in 2010.
Friends who took turns living with them in Houston, caring for them, even “washing their underwear” during Randall’s post-op recovery and radiation treatments.
Friends who sent cards and letters, photos and CaringBridge.com messages that brought them comfort and hope.
Friends who were with them always in spirit, who taught them, as Sharon explained it, “the power of our dependence on God and one another.”
Randall walked over to his seat and picked up a tall pole with his right hand. “This is my IV pole,” he said as he began to walk slowly step by step around the sanctuary, pausing for a moment after each step and saying someone’s name.
“This experience has given us a new way of understanding prayer,” Sharon explained as Randall stepped, paused and uttered another name.
“In the middle of the night, with the pain and headaches so severe he couldn’t sleep, Randall would get out of bed with his walker, pulling his IV pole with him, and walk through the halls and start naming your names. And the strangest and most glorious thing happened. You were there with us. You were there as we walked around that nurses’ station at 3 a.m.”
A few minutes later, Randall and Sharon closed the sermon with another form of prayer as they danced around the sanctuary with a congregation full of friends.
“The good news makes us want to dance,” Sharon said.
“Amen,” Randall said.