According to Me: Knowing to do good

His name was Michael. We were some three minutes into the conversation before he shared that information. We stood huddled between two revolving doors in front of the CNN Center, hoping the overhang of the Atlanta hotspot would be enough to keep us sheltered from the angry downpour that had sprung just moments earlier.

Newly-formed rapids sloshed down the adjacent street and washed the underbellies of the vehicles stalled at the traffic signal half a block ahead.

“I bet I’m the only person in Georgia that knows where DeFuniak Springs is,” he said as he pointed to the white logo for Ed’s Restaurant on the left breast of the black T-shirt I neglected to change out of earlier in the day despite it having acquired a fresh contribution of snot from my one-year-old daughter as she fought her daily bout with seasonal allergies. I thought of the stain more as a badge of honor than a reason to discard the shirt, leaving myself in position for the garment to provide an icebreaker to this stranger who was now engaging me as I only partially turned my attention away from my smart phone’s continued efforts to ensure I am more of a bystander to life than an actual participant in it.

He began to describe DeFuniak Springs, my wife’s Florida Panhandle hometown, with a degree of familiarity afforded only those who had spent considerable time there. He knew of Highway 90 and Lake Yard Circle. He said his family moved there for a brief time while he was in college and that he joined them for about a year as he took a break from his education.

His bright yellow shirt stood out amid a steady stream of Atlanta Hawks paraphernalia adorning the patrons who were ambling toward a Friday night spent watching their chosen team win its 60th game of the season. The steady stream of fans entering the center wore shirts with the latest Hawks logo or Dominique Wilkins jerseys or shirts with bright green and blue ink that hearkened back to the days of “Pistol” Pete Maravich. Michael, however, sported a shirt that read, “Pleasant Grove Baptist Church Mission Trip 2008.” It was a shirt that sat rather awkwardly above a pair of black shorts as the tenuously placed black cap atop his head allowed its “New York” embroidery to scream out with the vigor of a motel vacancy sign.

“So you live in Pleasant Grove now,” I interjected after a string of appeasements intended to exhibit my surprise at his knowledge regarding the small Florida town that unwittingly advertised itself on my shirt.

He did not live in Pleasant Grove. He seemed to be wholly unaware of any town called Pleasant Grove. In fact, he did not live anywhere. And that was a point he seemed reluctant to share as the conversation turned. But share it he did.

The details of his story filled the space between the raindrops as my mind bounced from one idea to another.

Homeless. (What’s he going to ask for?) Degree in finance. (I’ve seen a lot lately about larger percentages of the homeless population being well-educated people.) Southern Miss. (Golden Eagles. Hattiesburg, Miss. Brett Favre. They’re football team is bad right now.) Living behind restaurant for two weeks. (I wonder what restaurant.) Sleeping on concrete. (That’s not good for anyone, certainly not a 45-year-old, especially not in this rain.) Haven’t eaten in days. (I can get him some food.) Don’t want food. (I would want food.) Want a place to stay. (I can’t help him there.) Found a shelter that requires weekly payment. (I’ve never heard of that before, but I’ve never been homeless or lived in a big city.) Embarrassed to be in this position. (That’s probably true no matter how much of his story is factual.) Embarrassed to ask for help. (I would be too.)

“Everybody I’ve talked to has grabbed their purse tighter or put their hand near their wallet like I’m going to steal from them.”

(“Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.” James 4:17.)

And there it was; the only thought that mattered at that moment. I stood with an iPhone in my pocket having just walked through the food court of the CNN Center with every ability to purchase any item or plurality of items I desired. I opted to pass on getting a meal because I was still full from the ample lunch I’d eaten hours earlier and the breakfast I’d consumed hours before that. And had the rain not interrupted my trek, I would already have arrived at the venue where I would take the ticket out of my pocket and make my way inside to listen to the band that I had just come several hours to see.

To him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin. The thought became more emphatic within my mind as the raindrops bounced off the pavement just inches behind Michael.

For me, it would be sin to walk away. For me, it would be sin to decline to help. For me, it would be sin to allow him to be hungry. For me, it would be sin to allow him to sleep on the pavement. For me, it would be sin to spend more energy focusing on whether or not his story was factual than on providing him the assistance he requested. For me, it would be sin to know to do good and not do it.

For me, it would be sin to let those words sit merely as ink on a page inside a book that fewer and fewer people seem to want to read. For me, it would be sin to teach and preach those words and then to allow them no place in my decisions. For me, it would be sin to allow the little girl who had earlier made her snot deposit on my shirt or her big brother to grow into adults without understanding the existence of an unshakeable faith that has an eternal hope and practices an unquestioning love (I Corinthians 13:13).

The details began fading into the background, their importance swept away along with the water cascading over top the asphalt maze.

His name was Michael. And if that’s all I knew to be true about him, it’s all I needed to know in order to have been able to do good.

Jeremy D. Smith is managing partner of The West Alabama Watchman. He has covered news and sports in Demopolis since 2008. His column, According to Me, appears weekly on