[When Karen and I were in the Deep South this past March visiting long-time good friends who are really more like family to us, I visited the Ray Charles Memorial beside the Flint River in Albany, Georgia, there alone one Sunday after church and acquired that day and in that place my strong inspiration to write stories who I call “My Southern Muse.” The following is the first story that I wrote that day typing it out on my phone one letter at a time with only my now arthritic right thumb. ]
He was an African-American and probably in his forties, lean and weathered-looking from hard living which had likely also included hard drugs.
He was riding a mountain bike wearing a fluorescent green vest like I used to do when I used to ride my sleek twelve speed bicycle around town for leisure and exercise, but he wore a construction worker’s hat on his head instead of the cool white bicyclist’s helmet with black cutouts that looked like a skull that I always used to wear.
I wish now that I had taken a picture with my phone of my new acquaintance after he’d first circled me like a vulture for a while in ever tightening rings before he had finally approached me when I was strolling through this beautiful but sometimes rough and, at wrong times, dangerous neighborhood where Ray Charles had been born.
When he finally spoke to me, I was then alone in front of the “Welcome Center” in downtown Albany, Georgia, on a bright and beautiful Sunday afternoon, having returned here to see the Flint River Park with the Ray Charles Center in the daylight that we’d seen the night before when Karen, Ruth, Craig, and their sons Caleb and Christopher had all enjoyed a fantastic meal together at The Flint Restaurant.
“Do you know what building this is?” he asked.
I briefly considered whether or not to engage his offer to converse knowing that this was most likely his prelude to a panhandle but then I decided that I would.
“It says ‘Welcome Center’ on the front,” I answered.
“They sold slaves here.”
“Really?” I said somewhat incredulously.
“You’re a white man, and I’m a black man,” he said almost apologetically. “I hope you aren’t a racist.”
“Sir, I’m a born again believer in Jesus Christ, and I don’t even know what color Jesus is, but one Day I will.” I answered in truth.
“I used to be homeless, but I just got a job,” he said, likely lying. “My name is ‘Michael.’ Would you pray with me?” He added while extending his hand to shake mine.
“My name is ‘Mark,” I said while taking Michael’s sandpaper scratchy hand in mine. “ Yes, I will pray with you.“
“Could you please lay your hand on me?” Michael asked me.
“Yes, I will.” I said as I placed my left hand on Michael’s right shoulder.
“Lord, Jesus Christ,” I prayed, “Thank you for Michael and me. Thank you that Michael is no longer homeless and that he has a job now. Please help him and me to be more like You. Please, Lord Jesus, remove the scourge of racism from our land. Let Justice roll down like mighty waters and wash us all clean. In Jesus’ Name we pray. Amen!”
“Amen!” prayed Michael. “There’s power in your prayer,” he added.
“The ‘power’ is His Holy Spirit.” I said.
“Would you be able to help me?” Michael asked.
“How?” I asked looking Michael in the eye.
“Could you just give me something so that I can get something to eat?” He asked. “I’m not ashamed to ask for help. I don’t know when I could pay you back.”
“Then you can pay it forward,” I said as I slightly hesitated to bring out my wallet to give him a few small bills that I removed to give him because I knew that he would also see the $50 and $100 bills that I had in there too.
“Thank you,” Michael said. “Can I show you something down by the river?”
“No,” I answered. “I really have to go now. God bless you, Michael,” I said while shaking his sandpaper hand one more time. “I hope to see you again sometime,” in Heaven is what I thought when I said it.
“Yes, Sir,” Michael said. “And thank you again!”
. . . .
“What would Michael have shown me down by the river?” I wondered as he rode off on his bike and I got into my car and immediately locked the car door.
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