Chicago pastor returns after double-lung transplant

Dawn Rhodes
Chicago Tribune

Chicago –

Worshippers sang, danced and cheered in their seats Sunday morning to open their Easter service at Promise Church of Chicago on its west side.

When the Rev. Joseph Kyles walked in, the already boisterous crowd grew even more raucous, cheering as the 54-year-old approached his pulpit.

Clad in a gray suit, white shirt, blue alligator shoes and silver cuff links, Kyles stepped to the podium, carefully removed a white mask covering his nose and mouth, and said one word into the microphone: “Hallelujah.”

Kyles returned to preaching following a successful double-lung transplant earlier this year. He had been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, which, according to the American Lung Association, causes lung tissue to become thick, stiff and scarred, causing severe shortness of breath.

The illness, which had plagued him for years, left him unable to get out of bed on occasion, let alone preach with his characteristic vigor at the South Austin church he founded with his wife, Chrystal.

He took the microphone Sunday morning without the aid of an oxygen tank he frequently lugged around while he was ill. His voice occasionally cracked and squeaked as he began, but grew stronger and more forceful when he preached his sermon, “You shall live.”

Kyles, who joked that he had to hold himself back from being overly energetic as he continues to heal, said it was timely that his return to preaching fell on Easter.

“It’s a resurrection for me, too,” Kyles said. “I am back from the dead.”

Kyles was treated by doctors at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood. Loyola doctors began treating him in 2014 and told him he needed a double-lung transplant.

Kyles underwent several treatments, including extensive dental work and weight loss, before he was healthy enough for the major surgery. He was added to the transplant list in January and informed there was a match eight days later, he and his doctors said.

“I thought someone was playing a trick on me,” Kyles said, recalling the night he got the call from Loyola about two lungs being available. “The ink on a form isn’t even dry in eight days.”

Dr. Wickii Vigneswaran, a thoracic surgeon, performed the procedure on Feb. 6. Loyola officials said Vigneswaran used a less invasive technique to accelerate the recovery process.

Chrystal Kyles choked up with emotion as she told the crowd about the couple’s history, recalling how her athletic husband used to jog miles from his home to visit her at work when they were dating, then struggled to take a few steps without gasping for air.

“I saw his body go through changes,” Chrystal Kyles said, clasping her husband’s hand. “And I saw him go through the challenges like a good soldier.”

The pastor, occasionally tugging at slacks that have become too big, said he recently clocked 6,200 steps in a day on his Fitbit, doubling what he normally walks on a given day.

“It feels good to put that handicapped placard in the trunk, along with that oxygen tank,” Kyles told the crowd.

He said his faith was critical and rather than asking his doctors to pray for him, he prayed for his caretakers.

“Physical challenge can be difficult and make you bitter, make you not treat people like you should,” he said. “But you have as much to do with your recovery as (the doctors) do.

“While you’re waiting on God to give you that miracle, be sure to encourage yourself.”

“Rev. Kyles has a tremendous spirit,” said Dr. James Gagermeier, a pulmonologist at Loyola. “He has a perspective that enabled him to persevere despite more than a few setbacks.”

Angela Spires, a member of the church leadership team, said she was overjoyed to see Kyles getting back to his normal self. Spires noted that Kyles preached every Sunday despite his illness, with his oxygen tank in tow and taking breaks when he tired.

“He performed my wedding with the oxygen,” said Spires, of Aurora. “To see what he went through and to come back, it’s like a renewal. It’s like he’s a whole new person.”

Worshippers cried and cheered as Kyles gained strength throughout his sermon, moving around the stage with ease and bringing his voice above the rising crescendo of the drums and keyboard.

“I feel a second wind coming!” he yelled.