Lawsuit: Pastor’s blessing leaves woman with brain injury

Bishop William Sheals, senior pastor of Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, speaks during a town hall meeting against gay marriage in Norcross, June 26, 2015.

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Bishop William Sheals, senior pastor of Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, speaks during a town hall meeting against gay marriage in Norcross, June 26, 2015.

It was supposed to be a touch on her forehead, blessings from her church’s senior pastor. Instead, the pastor pushed Yvonne Byrd so hard, she fell to the ground and suffered a traumatic brain injury, according to a lawsuit filed this week in Gwinnett County state court.

Byrd arrived early to Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church on March 5, 2017, to sing in the choir. She had attended the Norcross megachurch for 15 years, the lawsuit states.

After the second service, Bishop William Sheals began “blessing” members of the congregation by touching their heads.

“The pastor was going around and healing different congregants,” attorney Brian Mickelson said Friday. “She was singing and meditating on what had been said.”

When it was her turn to be blessed, Byrd was knocked out cold, Mickelson said.

“When Defendant Sheals passed Ms. Byrd, instead of blessing her by touching her on the head as he did other congregants, he pushed her forehead with such force, that it caused her to fall backward and slam the back of her skull against the hard floor,” the suit states.

Sheals was unconscious after the fall and was treated at a local hospital. She later received treatment at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, her attorneys said Friday.

More than a year later, Byrd says she is still recovering from the “mild traumatic brain injury” she sustained when she fell. Sheals, the suit contends, was reckless and negligent when he injured Byrd. She is seeking a jury trial and unspecified damages for personal injuries, medical expenses and permanent physical and psychological damages, the lawsuit states.

“Defendant Hopewell had a duty to adequately supervise and train its employees, including Defendant Sheals, as to appropriate and safe physical contact with congregants during church services,” according to the lawsuit.

Assistant Pastor Alfred Davis said Friday afternoon the church was unaware of the lawsuit.

“We have not received any information on any lawsuit, so we have no comment at this time,” Davis said in a message to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Sheals, 71, has served at Hopewell nearly 38 years, according to his online biography, and has grown the once-struggling church from 200 members to around 15,000. Sheals, often referred to as "Papa," and his church have been featured multiple times in The AJC.

In June 2015, about 250 church members gathered on a Friday night to voice their opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling on same-sex marriage.

"We stand up and speak out against homosexuality and the social ills facing our community," Sheals said.

In addition to opposing same-sex marriage, Sheals said church members wanted to protect the black community.

"We are here because our schools are failing, our neighborhoods are crumbling, and our neighborhoods are falling apart," Sheals told the congregation.

In 2007, the Gwinnett branch of the NAACP presented Sheals with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Two years earlier, Sheals had more than 100 attendants present when he married his second wife, Patricia Kim. The couple resides in John Creek.

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