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Willie Bryson (2)


On a busy street one afternoon, a curious woman approached Willie Bryson and asked, "Pardon me, mister. I've been watching you and I would like to know how you eat?" Willie quickly responded, "My good lady, there is a steak house across the street, and if you will pay for the steak, I'll gladly show you how I eat." She did, and he did.

Willie Bryson is the sort of person who attracts attention. They call him, "Silly Willy." He is gregarious, alert and a conversationalist. He is also handicapped. He was born somewhat hump-backed with both of his arms deformed. His right arm ends at the elbow with three partially-webbed fingers and a thumb. Protruding from his left shoulder is a small portion of a hand which is only visible when his shirt is removed. He has described himself as little more than a "head on a fat stomach."

His handicap and gregarity went well together. Waitresses are a favorite foil for Willie. He often asks a waitress, "Pardon me, do you have sore fingers?" Though a little puzzled, the waitress would respond, "No." Willie would then ask, "Well, then, would you button my collar for me?" The waitress will invariably not only button his collar, but straighten his tie. At which time he would move his small left under his coat and sigh, "See how you make my heart flutter."

He was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1923 as the seventh child of twelve in a poor family. Some counselled the family to let him die. They judged that the quality of his life would be severely impaired. His mother refused, but the hardships on the family were great. In 1929, at the beginning of the Great Depression and at the tender age of 6, Willie's parents placed him with the Barnum & Bailey Circus as part of the "freak" show. "Fat Fanny" (the world's fattest woman) served as his guardian.

For two years Willie provided his family with substantial earnings and enabled them to survive the early years of the depression. In 1931 he returned to Chattanooga where he worked odd jobs on the streets of Chattanooga. He sold apples, ran illegal errands, and would sometimes be paid money to curse strangers on the street. At age of 13, he began school and entered High School in 1939.

During his teenage years Willie became a born-again Christian, and entered Dasher Bible School in Valdosta, Georgia. His teachers influenced Willie to become a preacher, and he was soon making forays into the American countryside to proclaim his new-found message. Once, while Willie was returning from a preaching appointment, he had to change buses in Cincinnati, Ohio. While making a phone call, someone stole his luggage which contained everything he owned. About three weeks later in Valdosta, the bus station notified him that a suitcase had arrived for him. There was a note in the suitcase which read, "Sorry, preacher, I could not wear anything you had." Willie's Bible was in his suitcase in which were inscribed his name and address. The individual could not wear any of Willie's clothes because they had been specifically altered for him. They would not fit anyone else.

After completing High School in Valdosta, Willie wanted to receive ministerial training, but was unable to afford college. However, due to the philanthropy of a wealthy man in Nashville, Tennessee who had previously met him at Dasher, and Willie's own persistance is rasing the necessary funds, Willie was able to attend David Lipscomb College in Nashville. Willie became an ordained minister among the Churches of Christ.

As you might guess, many of his experiences as a preacher were as unique as his handicap. While working with an inner city church, he received a call from a blind church member who needed immediate assistance due to an illness. It was past midnight and Willie was zooming through the town. Approaching an intersection at the bottom of a hill, Willie thought he could make the light, but a tractor-trailer truck jackknifed to avoid hitting him. The truck driver, enraged by the accident, jumped out of his cab and ran to Willie's car. "Get out the car because I'm going to beat you to a plup." In the dark, the truck driver could not see anything but Willie's head. Willie confessed that he was at fault. "Mister," he said, "I am a minister, and before I do anything I always read a verse or two of Scripture and pray." He handed the truck driver his Bible. "If you will read 1 Corinthians 13 and I'll pray. Then if you still want to fight, I will get out of the car and whip you." When the truck driver saw Willie in his short sleeves struggling to get out of his car, he threw up his hands, turned around and walked away mumbling to himself.

Some of his experiences were not so unique, but because of his vision of life and his contentment with the way things are, Willie can always use them in a unique way. While preaching for a small rural congregation, one sister in the church insisted every Sunday that he should visit her in her home. Consequently, every Sunday Willie visited her. On one hot Sunday afternoon, he drove up to the house. Because the windows were open, Willie could hear the family conversation inside, even across a plowed field. He heard the good sister say, "Here comes that bleep bleep preacher." Hot and sweaty, Willie knocked on the door. When she came to the door, Willie spoke first. "Here is that bleep bleep preacher." Willie had a way of disarming a tense situation, or perhaps creating one.

Neither was he the stereotypical, sanctimonious preacher. One morning as he sat at the counter waiting to be served his breakfast, the gentleman on his right began to give thanks for his toast and jelly. He prayed, and prayed, and prayed for what seemed like an eternity. When he finished, he turned to the man on his left and said, "Sir, I hope my prayer did not disturb you." The man replied, "No." Then he turned to Willie, and said, "Sir, I hope my prayer did not disturb you." "No," Willie responded, "but I'm glad you did not order bacon and eggs."

Willie was sickened by those whom he perceived to be preaching for money, or abusing the simple faith of people for their own profit. He was particularly incensed at the extravagant claims of faith-healers. Needless to say, he was not welcome at their tent-meetings which dotted the countryside in the 1950s. On one occasion in the early 1950s, near Pittsburgh, PA, Willie attended a massive healing meeting. Although he was excluded from the healing line (since he was not a "proper subject" for healing), Willie lifted an entry ticket from the back pocket of one of the "proper subjects" in the healing line. With this ticket (which he later returned), Willie was able to get on the stage. As soon as the healer saw him, he ordered him removed. Willie ran across the stage and grabbed the microphone, "Heal me! Heal me!," he exclaimed. "Who let this man in here," the healer protested. "Heal me! Heal me!," Willie continued. "I'll call the police," the healer threatened. "I'll call the press," Willie retorted. Willie was finally and physically removed from the stage.

In his early years Willie travelled the country by hitchhiking. He crossed the country from the east to the west coast during the depression. Remembering how he had been helped, he often returned the favor as he travelled to preaching appointments. Picking up hitchhikers was a joy to Willie.

One day he picked up a fellow traveler on a rainy day. Soon the young man fell asleep. Not long afterwards, Willie stopped the car because it had a flat. Since changing a flat tire was extremely difficult for Willie, he woke up the hitchhiker and told him what had happened. The stranger got out of the car into the rain and looked at the flat. Getting back in the car, he confirmed that the tire needed to be changed and promptly went back to sleep. Willie climbed out and with no little difficulty changed the tire. He then opened the back door of the car and set the man's luggage on the side of the road. When he got back into the car, he once again woke up his passenger and explained to him how difficult it was to change the tire in the rain. "By the way," he concluded, "I set your luggage out in the rain beside the road." When the hitchhiker got out to retrieve his luggage, Willie sped the car down the road.

Usually, however, his passengers were more conversational. Willie would always used the opportunity to discuss the Bible with them. He converted some, and others argued with him tenaciously. One particular hitchhiker was a dye-in-the-wool atheist. He and Willie argued for miles. "Mister," finally the hitchhiker said, "you were kind enough to give me a ride and I do not want to be unkind. But just to prove to you that there is a God, I would like for you to answer just one question." "Ask it," Willie said. The stranger responded: "If the God you believe in exists, and I do not believe in him at all, why did he make you with your handicap but gave me a perfect body?" Willie laughed and said, "God knew you could not stand it."

Willie could laugh at himself. He never let himself become discouraged by public ridicule. He never lost his faith in God, or his belief that God had chosen him for a special reason to be handicapped. It served Willie well, and through it, he served others.

Given his background, Willie was a tireless worker for the poor and the underclass. He spent most of his life working in small mission churches in rural counties or in the inner city, in both the United States and Canada. People gave him money because they knew he would help others. He would purchase food, pay hotel bills, rent homes and give cash to those in need. He was a minister to the poor and the handicapped.

Mark N. Hicks
John Mark Hicks


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