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THEN & NOW: Preaching against the odds

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Liberty Baptist Church Pastor Tom Clement has lived with Lou Gehrig’s disease years beyond expected. Though he’s lost about 90 percent of his mobility, he still pastors the small church in Stafford County. / Photo by Peter Cihelka

For the past two years, the Rev. Tom Clement hasn’t just fought against the degenerative disease that some predicted would have killed him by now.

He and his wife, Hye Kyong, have had to battle the government for his Social Security disability. The agency declared in February 2012 that the Stafford County pastor didn’t fit the definition of being disabled because he was able to preach, therefore he was working.

Social Security stopped his monthly checks and also wanted back the payments he’d already received.

The Clements got a lawyer and went through several appeals before a judge found in their favor this summer. In early December, the couple received the money they had been denied.

Their lawyer, Bruce Billman, said he’ll never forget the case because he witnessed an “oddball situation,” handled with grace.

“Of all my clients, the one you would expect to give up is the one in the worst possible physical condition,” Billman said. “But he didn’t.”

Based on the broad smile on his face, no one would ever suspect that Tom Clement has a care in the world.

He has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, but doesn’t dwell on the fact that the condition eventually will cause his muscles to whither and die. He’s already lost about 95 percent of his mobility.

Even so, Clement stresses the positive—that he’s still among the living when doctors feared he would be dead within two years of his diagnosis. He was told he had the disease in 2006, but had been living with symptoms for several years.

Everyone who was in the ALS support group when he joined has passed away.

While Clement is happy to share details of his unusual run-in with the government, he’d rather talk about the way God has touched the families in his small church.

“We have been blessed in so many ways, and I am so thankful,” the pastor said.

FINISH WHAT HE STARTS

Clement is 66 and a veteran of the Vietnam War. He was exposed to Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the military that was later found to be toxic.

He’s had cysts removed from all over his body and believes the chemical compromised his immune system—and may have opened the door to the degenerative disease.

Clement spent 30 years in the Navy, including time in Korea, where he met his wife. After he left the service, he started studying to be a pastor.

He had earned several degrees and was working on his doctorate in theology when his muscles began to twitch out of control and he started dragging his feet.

After he was diagnosed with the incurable disease, his wife assumed he would stop his studies. She wondered why he would pursue a degree that he might not live long enough to use.

In an August 2011 story in The Free Lance–Star, he said he had taught his three children that, “You don’t start something without finishing it.”

Besides, as he vowed to continue his ministry at Liberty Baptist Church, a one-room chapel next to his home, he counted on God to watch over him.

“I’d rather die in the pulpit than waiting to die in the bed,” he said.

A ‘SAINTLY’ DEMEANOR

The Clements contacted Billman, a Spotsylvania County disability attorney, after the Social Security agency sent them a letter.

The agency decided in February 2012 that Clement didn’t meet the definition of being disabled because he was able to work, Billman said. It wanted back the $45,421 in payments he had received since 2010.

The issue arose from the $20,000 Clement gets annually from the church as a housing allowance. Agency officials viewed that money as payment for work Clement had done, Billman said.

The lawyer, who has argued Social Security cases for 34 years, said the way the agency handles disability claims is quite specific.

“The first question out of the box is, ‘Are you working?’ If yes, it doesn’t matter what your medical situation is,” Billman said. “It didn’t matter that he was in a wheelchair, and he couldn’t move his arms and his legs.

“Anybody with half-sense, one eye and about five minutes would have understood why this is wrong.”

Billman presented tax returns and the church’s financial records. He said a housing allowance is a standard way for churches to pay for their parsonages. He also noted that a good portion of the offerings in the small church came from the pastor and his wife.

Twice, Social Security denied the appeal to have the decision overturned. The case proceeded to a judge, who decided in August 2013 that Clement was entitled to disability, as well as the back payments he had been denied.

Billman said he was glad to handle the case because it allowed him to meet a man who has become one of his favorite people.

“Saintly,” he said when asked to describe Clement’s demeanor throughout the ordeal. “I don’t know a better way to describe it.

“I’ve never seen anybody with a more positive attitude, both he and Mrs. Clement. I imagine a great deal of that comes out of his faith, but literally, God bless him.”

‘WHAT MORE CAN I ASK?’

At first glance, Clement looks much the same as he did two years ago: still in the wheelchair, still receiving therapeutic treatments from hospice workers, still smiling all the way.

A closer look reveals a different story. He no longer can raise his hands above his head, and he’s little more than skin and bones.

The Veterans Administration supplied him with an extra-large computer keyboard and a device which looks like a joystick except it has a yellow ball on top, to move the cursor around.

“It’s a little slower than your mouse would be, though that’s the case with me, too,” he said, grinning.

He loves communicating with family and church members.

He acknowledges it’s been a rough couple of years. His Medicare paperwork recently showed him as being deceased, and when he tried to vote in November, his name wasn’t listed among the registered voters.

“You would think people were trying to remove me from every record there ever was,” he said, “like I’ve been wiped off the slate.”

He and his wife both laughed at that. Hye Kyong Clement, 63, has been more stressed about issues than her husband and wonders if she’ll die before him. Then she worries about who would take care of him.

“You have to think with a good attitude,” she said, “otherwise you can’t make it.”

Her husband epitomizes that. He talks about what he has left instead of mourning what he has lost.

“My appetite is constant, my heart is strong, my lungs are clear and my body functions are normal,” he said, showing his trademark smile. “What more can I ask?”

ABOUT THE SERIES

THEN & NOW is an occasional update on stories previously featured in The Free Lance–Star.

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

cdyson@freelancestar.com

 

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