As part of a weeklong series, Beyond Belief: Faith In Texas, NBC 5 political reporter Julie Fine spoke with Gov. Greg Abbott about the role faith and religion plays in his life.
“Religion and faith of been part of my life for my very beginning. My grandfather was a pastor in the countryside of Texas where I grew up, and so it's been just a natural part of my life that has continued through life's events such as when I was in the Boy Scouts, which was another great connector. When I was a teenager, candidly I drifted away a little bit. But then I was brought back into my deep religious beliefs when I was in college, when I met a young woman that I used to attend church with a whole lot,” said Abbott.
That woman was Cecilia Phalen. They began attending 10 p.m. mass together every Sunday evening.
The future governor and Phalen married in 1981 and he eventually converted to Catholicism.
Three years after they married, Abbott was hit by a tree while running and was paralyzed from the waist down.
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“One moment I was walking and running and doing everything I had done my entire life. The next moment, literally, I would no longer be able to walk. But I didn't know if I would be able to work. I didn't know if I will be able to do anything in life,” he said.
Abbott relied on his faith to propel him, although admitted he had some doubt early in his recovery.
“Whenever you face a difficult time in life, not every time, but sometimes, if it's a very difficult situation like losing your ability to walk and becoming paralyzed, your faith is tested," Abbott said. "My faith was tested, and I questioned why something like this would happen, but then I quickly felt the guidance of God and the realization that God has a different pathway for us than what we may think and that we cannot be locked into a certain pathway. We need to listen to God's guidance. And through each step in my recovery process after my accident, I grew closer and closer to God. And since then the relationship has even been stronger and better than before the accident,” said Abbott.
The strength he found from God helped Abbott build up his own. He pushed himself up and down ramps in parking garages to build up arm strength.
“It was after that, in the months that followed that, when you begin to paste your life back together, when you begin to realize you are going to be in a wheelchair, you are not going to be able to walk, your life has changed evermore. But here's the key part. Your life hasn't really changed. What has changed is the way you get around. What hasn't changed is the core of your life, and if the core of your life is God-centered, then everything is going to work out just fine,” said Abbott.
The emotional and physical strength Abbott found propelled him to the Texas Supreme Court, the attorney general’s office and, in 2014, he became governor of Texas.
In his inauguration speech Abbott said, “I am living proof that a young man can have his life broken in half and still rise up to be the governor of this great state.”
Abbott said putting God at the center of his life helped him once again last summer when he was badly burned.
“Whenever there is an accident, an injury, or tragedy, we always revisit our faith. And it is important to connect back to it,” said Abbott.
Abbott was in the shower and was burned by scalding water. He could not feel the burns because of his paralysis.
“When the [July 7] shooting took place in downtown Dallas, I was in an emergency room in Wyoming suffering from burns that had burned all the skin off the top of my feet and my right shin. Very substantial third-degree burns. And I learned at that time what happened in Dallas and I told the doctors, 'You just got to package me up. I got to get out of here and get to Dallas.' And so it was responding to God's calling to be responsive and care about others more than myself that allowed me to be able to do that,” said Abbott.
The governor came to Dallas and spoke at city hall the day after the shooting. His burns were hidden by baggy pants and orthopedic shoes. Three days later, he entered a burn center in San Antonio.
“With the Dallas situation, it brings to mind something for me, and that is that God doesn't promise a life that is storm free. God's promise is the guidance, the support, to help us through the storms that occur, and that's what happened in Dallas,” he said.
Governor and Mrs. Abbott continue to weather the storms together. Every Sunday, they attend services at different churches throughout the area.
“We are all challenged in life. And with me becoming a paraplegic, having suffered third-degree burns, in addition to that going through a multitude of challenges. Whatever your challenge may be, the most profound way to deal with those challenges is through connecting with God. With God as your guidepost, you will be able to overcome any challenge that ever comes your way,” said Abbott.