We’d had about a 3-minute lull in our breakfast serving line last Sunday at San Angelo’s First United Methodist Church. That’s typical. There’s a rush when the doors open at 8 a.m., but after the first wave of 50 or so hungry and homeless come through, the pace slows considerably.
My serving buddy, Amber, and I were catching up on what was going on with one another. Amber’s grown son, who inspired her to be so active in the mission because of his troubling lifestyle choices, died in California about six weeks ago. She’s on the first fresh days of a one-day-at-a-time grief process and she tells all who ask, some days are easier than others.
We interrupted our conversation to fix a plate for a “new guy” asking about breakfast.
It might be the only meal he would get that day, he said. I said, “Then please make sure you get plenty.” I put a generous portion of egg/potato casserole on his plate, and a large serving of refried beans. Amber offered him oatmeal, which he politely refused, but said he would like a tortilla – two if we had enough.
I guess Amber and I looked at his face at the same time when she handed the plate across because we both realized the man was crying. Not sobbing, but tears were quietly trailing down his cheeks.
“Are you OK?” We asked in unison.
“No,” he said. “I just can’t stop crying and I can’t stop drinking.”
After another few seconds, he took his plate to the dining room.
“Let’s let him get something in his stomach,” Amber said, “then one of us can go sit with him.”
“If I were a betting person,” I said, “I would bet he was staying at the Williams House and fell off the wagon and got kicked out.”
In a few minutes, I told Amber I would go check on “our guy.”
He said his name was James. He’d made a good dent in the plate of food, and was so grateful we were there, and food was available. He was 60, he said, and been drinking for as long as he could remember. He couldn’t stop, every time he did for a little while, something would happen. Now his cousin, who’d been like a brother, had died – and his cousin was a good man, not a drunk like him. Why did God take a good man, and not a drunk like him? He asked.
Oh gosh. Questions like that are way above my pay-grade. (I’m joking. I’m a volunteer.) I held James’ hand for a few minutes and let him talk. He told me he was a veteran, and that his aunt had bought him a bus ticket to Big Spring so he could “get dried out” at the VA hospital there – but he had to be at the bus station by 6, and his bag was under the bridge by the Santa Fe Golf Course. It was a heavy bag and he’d never be able to carry it from the bridge to the bus station.
And then our conversation made another loop, about he couldn’t stop crying and he couldn’t stop drinking, and he didn’t know why he was even alive.
And I said, “Because you do have worth, and God does love you, and this is what you have to do. You have to take the first step on the path God’s put before you.” I told him what my mama always said, “Do what you can, first.
“Don’t be afraid of getting sober. We need to get you on that bus,” I said.
We’re cautioned against giving cash, or offering rides – especially, you know, if we’re single females. I squeezed James hands, and told him to wait there, I’d go see what I could do. Turns out a couple helping in the kitchen were willing and able to be James’ taxi, if he could wait a little bit. And when I checked with them later, they said it had gone off without a hitch.
James has been on my heart and in my prayers all week. Our meeting blessed me because, you know, I sat down with James without any thought to what I might say, and what I said seemed to come from someone wiser and more assured than me. The amazing thing is, the words I said, were the words I needed to hear too.
It’s that age old advice of the angels. “Fear not.”
Candace Cooksey Fulton, formerly of Brownwood, is a freelance writer now living in San Angelo. She writes weekly columns for the Brownwood Bulletin and the San Angelo Standard-Times, each unique to the particular paper. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.