The first time Ann Beck walked into Raleigh’s Central Prison to sit with a group of convicted murderers – nothing separating them and the metal doors clanging shut behind her – she wasn’t afraid.
That was no small feat for the claustrophobic grandmother rendered frail with health issues, including a kidney transplant – a woman who has spent her life in corner offices.
But Beck knew what it was like to stare down death, and she strode confidently into prison to share a message of redemption, suffering, faith and love.
Ever since she was a child growing up in a poor but devoutly religious family during the civil rights movement, Beck has wondered why God would let suffering exist.
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“We grew up in a low-income housing community, very impoverished,” said Beck, now 63. “I was always asking questions like: Why is there so much hate? Why is there so much poverty? Why does God allow the faithful to suffer?”
She left those thoughts mostly behind as she climbed the corporate ladder, eventually making a modest fortune as vice president of information technology for J.P. Morgan, one of the world’s biggest banks.
A diagnosis of kidney failure led her to North Carolina and the loss of almost everything she had.
But her illness also led her to strengthen her relationship with God. She’s now an ordained minister and theologian with two master’s degrees in religion.
Despite her struggles, Beck says she’s happier than ever.
She now also believes she knows the answer to that question about suffering.
“And what I’ve learned is suffering strengthens faith,” she said.
It’s a message she shares with death row inmates, hospital patients and church-goers at Apex First Baptist, where she attends church and ocassionally preaches.
‘The Lord has taken care’
Beck was diagnosed with kidney failure about 20 years ago. Doctors told her it was a combination of severely high blood pressure and only having one working kidney. She said she apparently lost function in the other one, a condition that was undiagnosed as a child.
Beck always had been religious, but preaching was never a goal until health problems prompted her to move from Ohio to Apex, in 2002, to be with her son, Antoine.
Beck discovered her love for preaching while in dialysis treatments in Pittsboro. Other patients passed the time watching Jerry Springer, but Beck turned off the TV and started a Bible study.
“We read Job, and I saw their lives drastically improve,” she said.
In the Book of Job, God allows Satan to torment Job in terrible ways. Job remains faithful, however, and eventually God rewards him for enduring.
Antoine Beck says his mother’s path parallels Job’s.
“The amazing thing is on this whole journey, she’s never complained,” said Antoine Beck, an accountant who now lives in Winston-Salem. “Her faith was so strong, even when mine wasn’t. She helped me through it.”
Dialysis is an uncomfortable, even painful process. Ann Beck said studying the messages in Job helped her and the other patients with their treatment.
“They became more compliant with their dialysis,” she said. “More willing to accept suffering for their own good.”
A brush with death
Beck earned her first religious master’s degree from the Apex School of Theology in 2008.
Almost immediately, she started a second master’s program at Campbell University’s School of Divinity. Shortly after she enrolled, she selected for a kidney transplant.
But there were complications, and Beck thought she might die. She started giving away most of her possessions and money with the rest of the wealth going to medical bills.
“I was just praying I’d make it through the first semester,” she said.
Beck said she was prepared to die, yet somehow pulled through.
“She believes deeply that the Lord has taken care of her this far, and her hope is in Him for the future,” said J.E. Perkins, former preacher at Apex First Baptist and founder of the Apex School of Theology. “It’s her life. It’s her lifestyle. So she gives her all in what she’s doing.”
Once Beck had recovered, by 2009, Perkins had ordained her as a minister. Five years later – this May – she finally graduated. She’s now thinking of starting on a Ph.D to further her religious education.
“She feels that whatever time she has left, she wants to devote to the kingdom of God,” Perkins said.
“I feel like I’m dreaming,” Beck added. “I wake up every morning and ask what I can do next.”
‘Life after this’
One task she felt called to is preaching on death row.
She was intimidated at first, having read all of the inmates’ files “to see how hideous everything was they did.”
But she also read news articles about men exonerated from death row in recent years, their innocence having been proven after decades in prison.
That reminded her it’s not her duty to judge, Beck said. So she gathers the prisoners around a table, reads from the Bible, answers their questions and tells them she believes there’s hope to be found in God, even if they have no more hope in this mortal world.
“I just wanted to tell them there’s life after this,” she said.
Antoine Beck adds, “She offers hope in those dark times – that there’s a brighter side.”
‘All about love’
Perkins said his protegé is the perfect person to preach on death row because, like those men, she has been forced to confront her own mortality.
“I can tell them I know what it’s like to not know if this breath is going to be your last,” Beck said.
And in the grand scheme of things, she’s glad for that.
As much fear as disease put into her, she said, it also led her to North Carolina, closer to family and closer to God.
Antoine Beck said he’s glad his young children have had their grandmother around as a role model.
“As much pain as she endures, she always seeks to comfort other people rather than to be comforted, and to love rather than be loved,” he said. “She always is looking out for others, even when times are hard for her.”
Ann Beck had a similar answer to explain her enduring happiness and energy: learning to love yourself, your neighbors and your circumstances, no matter how bad it seems on the surface.
“I did all this schooling just to find out it’s all about love,” she said.
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran