By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. and Digital Editor
Nineteen months ago Bishop-elect Paula Clark began what has been a long, arduous, but blessing-filled health journey. It’s been one of those roads that makes one ask, “Are we there yet?” and simultaneously proclaim, “Thank you, Jesus, for taking the wheel.”
It all started on March 15, 2020. The day resonates as March 15 is my maternal grandmother’s birthday. That was the weekend the rest of the world went into lockdown, and I was picking up Bishop- elect Clark from National Airport (Clark is my mother). She landed in the D.M.V., after a week-long conference in Orlando, Clark called me with excitement telling me she had arrived. Despite the joy of safe arrival and reunion in my mother’s voice, I could only pay attention to one thing: her cough.
“What was that?” the germaphobe in me asked urgently. Clark told me she thought a cold she had, a week or so before, had been lingering. Perhaps, I thought.
A day later she felt miserable. Clark’s cough and respiratory symptoms worsened, but as an asthmatic she had things to help her breathing. As the world was on lockdown due to the rampant coronavirus and COVID-19 tests were few and far between, Clark’s doctor advised her to do a tele-health appointment and she was subsequently diagnosed and treated for pneumonia. While they thought it was possible she had COVID, her doctor’s office felt like with her already existing symptoms it was too unsafe to go outside as she was likely to either contract coronavirus or spread it if she already had it. She learned much later the latter would prove to be true.
For a little shy of two weeks, Clark dealt with a serious cough, extreme fatigue, loss of taste and smell and more symptoms now known to be associated with coronavirus. She quarantined as a matter of precaution. I’d bring her items, leaving it on her front door and waving at her through the window.
When the worst of the symptoms and the two weeks had passed, I was happy to safely and precautionarily reunite with my mother, masked up and constantly cleaning my hands. Clark was back to herself, working hard, fighting for justice, and, I assumed, feeling better.
“My work, my calling, lead me to a justice fight, sometimes fighting through some of my lingering COVID-19 symptoms. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and so many other people had recently been killed, on top of the hundreds of other Black and Brown lives lost unjustly,” Clark said.
“I was often very tired, I still couldn’t smell and sometimes had respiratory challenges with the heat and my masks, but I had to be out there. Quoting one of my sheroes and a Mother of the struggle, Ella Baker, ‘Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a White mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.’ I felt I could not rest.”
Clark took to the streets, marching, praying and preaching throughout the Lafayette Square area of Northwest, Washington, D.C., and she continued into the summer heat, when and after the locale was declared Black Lives Matter Plaza. Despite finding it odd she still couldn’t smell the odors people complained of, a warped sense of taste and occasional brain fog, Clark continued the work for the people.
As the summer concluded and the fatigue and bouts of brain fog passed, Clark made the decision to dive into a new journey, a call to the Episcopate. After months of prayer, discernment, interviews and more, she was elected the first Black and first woman Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago.
After all she had been through in 2020, this mama’s girl, who was going to miss her mommy living 10 minutes away from her, was reminded that Clark’s historic victory was a confirmation she was walking into her calling from God.
Little did I know the long and arduous journey had just begun. Before Clark flew to Chicago in December 2020, she went to the doctor for a COVID antibodies test and learned she had, “strong antibodies,” which the physician indicated meant she indeed had COVID-19 in March of that year and that it was probably a really hard case of coronavirus. She admitted it was.
Through all the excitement and celebration, Clark noticed her sense of smell and taste was still not as strong as it previously had been. By the end of 2020, research and information about “long-haulers,” people who have long-lasting COVID-19 symptoms, had begun to surface. Clark was sure she was a lucky long-hauler- blessed to not experience some of the more miserable symptoms associated with COVID-19.
She was vaccinated in February 2021, upon officially moving to Illinois to begin work as Bishop-elect of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. Feeling ready and protected, to begin work, my mother did just that.
Clark’s staff joked about her workaholism in early May, saying that she had worked them harder, in the first few weeks of working under her, than they had in a very long time.
Life comes at you fast. I watched Clark preach about rebooting and restoring on Easter Sunday, April 4, with fervor and power from the St. James Cathedral pulpit in Chicago. The following Sunday, April 11, I was hugging my mother as she laid in a hospital bed in a Chicago suburb.
“I was at the gym and had just had a three hour workout. I was feeling great, but then all of a sudden, I felt awful,” Clark said.
On April 10, my mother experienced a ruptured arteriovenous malformation (AVM) of the brain. Apparently she was born with the AVM and had thrived her whole life, despite headaches, without knowing that the brain malformation was even there.
The strong woman Clark is, she stumbled to call 911 herself from a fitness trainer’s desk and was rushed to the hospital via ambulance. As many Black women experience, Clark’s condition was initially not taken very seriously, however, per suggestion of Clark’s best friend, who is a physician, she was given a CT scan, and the AVM was discovered.
Clark was transported by ambulance to another hospital to immediately begin treatment for the AVM. There she had several procedures, a craniotomy and suffered a stroke.
It was also there the AVM was removed and I watched Clark’s mere presence serve as a testimony to God’s love, miracle working power and glory. One doctor came into Clark’s hospital room and said to her, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual. Every time I come into the room I feel this positive aura and I see a light around you.”
Weeks later when Clark was moved to a rehabilitation center, a nurse walked into Clark’s room and randomly proclaimed, “God is using you.”
After needing assistive devices to move around and challenges communicating due the stroke and brain surgery, Clark is now able to walk without assistance and is talking. She is still recovering from the brain trauma, doing speech, physical and occupational therapy exercises daily, but that’s to be expected. It’s the brain.
However, the AVM is not the only ailment Clark has not fully recovered from. COVID-19 symptoms still persist. Nineteen months since overcoming the throws of coronavirus, Clark does olfactory exercises to assist with her sense of smell.
“COVID-19 is very real and the symptoms can be very serious. A year and a half later and I’m still feeling COVID’s sting,” Clark said.
“I feel blessed that I am alive to emphasize the need for protecting oneself from coronavirus. I chose to get the vaccine, because I know how bad it was battling COVID-19 the first time. Despite how uncomfortable they are to wear at times, and as asthamtic, I get it, it’s so important to wear masks, as well as wash hands regularly and socially distance as much as possible,” Clark said.
Bishop-elect Clark took this interview as the reporter is her daughter. She has asked for privacy during this time as she is currently caring for her husband, who is battling the last stage of multiple myeloma.