The Man of God

Commentary by Cameron Abel

It was a cold, wet night in Vicksburg. I stepped outside the hotel to smoke a cigarette. A young man in a heavy canvas coat and muddy boots sat on a bench nearby.

He asked, “Are you a man of God?”

I nodded my head, answered affirmatively. I instantly knew where this was heading but didn’t mind or shy away from it. He said he had a new job down Highway 61, but added, “I need some help.”

“What can I do?” I asked.

“How about $5 and a bag of Bar-B-Q Fritos from the machine in the hotel lobby, if they got ‘em?” I gave him $7, thinking he might be pleased with a little extra, but trying to discretely hide the four $20 bills nestled there in my wallet. I went to get him his chips. I returned triumphant and handed him the bag. He was joyous: “They had them! They’re my favorite.”

He paused then asked tentatively, “If I give you the $5 back, will you give me a 20 instead?”

I soured. “Quit while you’re ahead,” I said, and as I walked away, headed for the warmth of my room, I called over my shoulder, “Good luck on the new job.”

Through the remainder of the week, I was approached by two other panhandlers. The first received no more than a “no cash, man.” The second was a woman who clutched her light bill and said that her electricity had been cut off, and she needed to get a room for her and her two boys for the weekend. She got one of those $20 bills.

It had been easy, as a child, to key in on exactly what is expected of us: love God with all your heart, love your neighbor as yourself. The former commandment is seemingly abstract, but practiced through daily prayers of wonder and thanks, and maintaining good stewardship over our world. But being asked to give, on the spot, in person, always gives me a feeling that I’m being tested by God. Am I loving my neighbor?

My first encounter with a panhandler was not long after my first move from Oxford to the Delta, on a hot summer night at a convenience store in Leland, with mosquitos on the assault, me trying to get to my car before being eaten alive.

“I need $2 for gas,” the young man claimed. I was quick to give then, and the resulting feeling was assuring. It didn’t last. The next time I stopped for gas, the same young man approached. Same request. He didn’t recognize me. I didn’t bite.

About 20 years ago, my husband Buddy and I went to San Francisco. The homeless there cast a pall that, along with the weather, really brought down the level of enjoyment. (One sign, propped against an intoxicated woman, said: “Give Me Money Or I Will Get An Abortion.”)

While at City Lights Booksellers, I spotted an elderly woman, at least 80, pushing a grocery cart filled with her worldly goods. I impulsively wanted to give her something, but she hadn’t asked, and I didn’t offer. Yet, she haunted me the next several days.

“What if she were an angel, Buddy?” I lamented. I just couldn’t shake the feeling.

A couple of days later, while we stood at the counter of a coffee shop, we heard squeaky wheels outside the open door. Buddy said, “I’ve got it,” and walked to the sidewalk and pulled money from his wallet to give her. It was the best anniversary gift that he could have given me.

Last story. Parking lot at Walmart. “I need some gas money. I’m coming back from Atlanta and I’m almost on empty. Need to get to Belzoni.”

“I’ll do you better,” I said, pointing. “Meet me at that gas station.”

He drove a huge truck, one of those with two gas tanks. I ran my card, he pulled out the gas nozzle, and opened the gas cover revealing the two caps to the two tanks. He chose the wrong one. It topped off just after $3. He looked at me and started to move the nozzle to the other tank. I flipped the lever and walked away. Neither of us said a word.

It can be difficult to maintain a spirit of charity. I don’t know how to react anymore. I feel spiritually bruised. And used. When I see my priest, I will beg a pearl of wisdom and a breath of revival.

I know the right hook: “Are you a man of God?”

Cameron Abel is an attorney in Greenwood.

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