By LISA MILLER • News Journal • October 27, 2008

— One woman said she came to hear Norris Burkes speak because she wanted to see a celebrity. Another woman wanted to hear the kinds of stories he tells in his columns that appear in the News Journal and newspapers around the country. Others wanted suggestions on how to get a writing career off the ground.

What all of the people got at Burkes’ presentation Sunday at the Mansfield/ Richland County Public Library was a humorous travelogue of his journey from Southern Baptist pastor to pediatric hospital ward chaplain to Air National Guard chaplain and freelance writer.

Burkes was wrapping up a weekend that began with a Saturday night talk at First Congregational Church. He spoke again at the church’s Sunday morning service before coming to the library for a talk and to sign his book, “No Small Miracles.”

A Baylor University graduate in religion and journalism, the writer admitted he had long had a calling to help people with “trauma and drama.”

He has offered prayers at children’s bedsides, for satellite launches on Florida’s Space Coast and in war zones. In January he’s headed for Iraq and a four-month tour in what he said is one of the busiest emergency rooms in the world. He plans to continue his column, which has been honored by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

Admitting that he gets some flak from pastors for his sometimes irreverent style, Burkes said if he did more preaching, newspapers wouldn’t run his columns.

“I try to be open and keep the conversation open,” he said.

He advised those who want to start writing to find their niche and to consider starting with an online blog.

Burkes characterized his work as focusing on “spirituality in everyday life.”

“Not trying to write a Bible study, trying to work at the God thing,” he said. He hopes readers will think that “if that muddle-headed pastor can work out his spirituality, maybe I can, too.”

He read from his book, choosing a moving column about a boy with a malignant brain tumor who always shared his bag of candy with others. The tale had many at the library in tears.

John Paul DeWalt was one of them.

“If that’s not a tribute,” the Mansfield man said after wiping his eyes.

An aspiring Christian writer, DeWalt bought one of Burkes’ books before they sold out. “He speaks to the reality of life and the hardness of it,” he said.

His wife, Donna DeWalt, would also like to publish the story of her life of foster homes and abuse.

“I really enjoyed him,” she said. “I wish I could hear more of him.”

Eileen Levison also praised the talk.

“Oh, I enjoyed it very well,” the Mansfielder said. “I enjoy his columns.”

Burkes extended mutual admiration.

“Oh, it was great,” he said of his weekend in the Mansfield community, which he called one of the best experiences of his speaking tour. He left his most recent hospital chaplain position seven months ago and has been writing and speaking ever since. This stint saw him leave his Elk Grove, Calif., home for book signings in Denver and Florida before coming to Ohio.

“I’ll be back,” he said.