By Kirk Petersen
More than a year after her consecration as Bishop of Chicago was pre-empted by a stroke, the Rev. Paula Clark has a new consecration date: September 17. Consecrations always are joyous occasions, but this one will be epic.
Two weeks before she was scheduled to kneel as a priest and stand up as a bishop, Clark suffered a stroke related to an arteriovenous malformation (AVM), “an abnormal tangle of blood vessels connecting arteries and veins, which disrupts normal blood flow and oxygen circulation,” according to the Mayo Clinic. AVMs occur in about 10 of every 100,000 people. Brain surgery was successful, but left her in no condition to take her vows as a bishop.
In July, she appeared by video with Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry and the Rev. Anne B. Jolly, president of the diocesan Standing Committee, to announce that Clark’s consecration was being postponed indefinitely — but that all parties involved were committed to seeing her become the 13th Bishop of Chicago.
Clark smiled into the camera while saying, “as you can hear from me right now, there are little ways that we have to go to be at full-time capacity.”
Misfortune was not done with her yet. Her husband died of cancer in November.
“My husband Andrew was my soulmate, he really was. And he was very supportive of me becoming bishop. So this day is a celebration for not just me, but for his legacy,” she said, speaking to TLC a few hours after the consecration date was announced. “I’m grateful to him even in his passing.”
She spoke from Richmond, Virginia, where she was attending “baby bishop school” — which formally goes by the less descriptive name “Living Our Vows.” It’s a canonically required, five-day residential program run by the College for Bishops, to help new bishops acclimate to their roles.
Despite her setback, Clark counts her blessings. “Not everyone survives a brain bleed, it was very serious, I was in the ICU,” she said. “But I always had a prognosis that I would be increasing in abilities, and that I would have a full recovery.” Her voice is still noticeably impaired, but also noticeably improved since the video a year ago. She no longer has to use a walker.
She has already been working at the diocese part-time for more than two months — 20 hours a week now, and she expects to be able to work “40-plus” by September. She got the go-ahead to begin gradually returning to work from her physiatrist, a physician specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation. “Put this woman to work!” she quoted the doctor with a laugh.
“I’m cognizant of how much I do, and I make sure I also have down time. It’s really required of everyone, but I’m probably a little more conscientious that that has to be a part of my routine,” she said. “I have high executive function, I’m able to speak, I’m able to ambulate without difficulty, get from here to there, and I live on my own.”
“I will have exercises that are related to the stroke for the rest of my life,” she said. “It’s just part of what you do to stay nimble, right? So it’s a part of who I am now, the exercise regime is part of what I do, so that’s forever.”
Her work has become part of her recovery, and her recovery will become part of her ministry.
“I’ll also be a spokesperson for disability rights,” she said. “Being differently abled, I’ve come to realize that that part of my being is very important. I will not shy from speaking about that, because we as a society have a long way to go where that’s concerned.”
She added, “Honestly, I’ve experienced more discrimination as a differently abled person than I have as a black woman.” As a person who has returned to work, she prefers “differently abled” to “disabled,” although she used both terms.
Through a spokesperson, Jolly said “I was on a call in January with the presiding bishop, the bishop-elect and the physiatrist who oversaw her case at the National Rehabilitation Center in Washington, D.C. I was very happy to hear the doctor say that Paula was more than ready to return to work. Since she has been back, she has been successfully ramping up her hours, and we look forward with joy to her consecration.”
“I have been so inspired by her courage, by her commitment to doing the work she needed to do upon her release from the hospital, upon her release from rehab, to return to this role. And her faithfulness that God would provide,” said the Rev. Courtney Reid. She has been director of operations for the diocese for a decade, but will soon leave that role for a position in parish ministry — in Chicago, so Clark will be her bishop.
“I know there’s people who are worried about her speech, which continues to improve,” Reid said. “At a certain point, I don’t even notice that, because that is just Paula.”
“She is living into how she has been changed and transformed… living into life as she will be as our bishop,” she said.