Michael Jackson’s death had been announced a full day before the news finally reached me. I never cared for his work, and I found his public persona quite unsettling, but I’m the first to admit that he’s an iconic figure of no small cultural significance.
The announcement of Farrah Fawcett’s death got by me, too. As a boy, I was one of millions with that famous poster on my wall — the one with that mane of blonde hair and that brilliant smile. “Charlie’s Angels” was an important event every Wednesday night, as evidenced by the waiving of my otherwise strictly-enforced 8:30 p.m. school night bedtime.
When the news finally did reach me, it was emblazoned across a gigantic television screen in the CNN Center in Atlanta, Georgia. I was in the midst of my church’s annual short-term mission trip, and we were sitting in the food court of Ted Turner’s media palace. We had come to share the gospel with the homeless population in Atlanta’s inner-city, in one of the most economically-depressed and crime-infested neighborhoods in the country. Our assignment that day had been to establish contact with someone in Centennial Park and see to it that they had a good lunch and a conversation about their need for a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.
I was sitting with my co-leader Diane, the six teenagers who compose the mission team, and LaMar, our guest. Overhead on the enormous screen, breathless CNN reporters were reporting on Michael and Farrah’s deaths. By the urgent tone and the sheer abundance of coverage, one would have assumed a president had been assassinated, but I couldn’t stop listening to LaMar tell his story.
Once a happily married man, his life imploded suddenly when his wife was murdered. As is often the case, the husband became the prime suspect, and LaMar was arrested and charged with homicide. He languished in jail for months, awaiting trial while doing his mourning behind bars. Finally the charges were dropped for lack of evidence.
Still paralyzed with grief, he left jail to re-enter a life that was predictably in wreckage. His job had been given to someone else, his apartment had been lost and his modest savings had been eaten up by legal fees. Penniless, homeless, and friendless, LaMar’s daily life by the time we met him consisted of little more than rudimentary survival.
As I listened, in the corner of my eye I could see footage of the weeping throngs who had made their pilgrimage to lay flowers outside the gates of Michael Jackson’s home. In Neverland did the King of Pop a stately pleasure dome decree…
LaMar could sometimes get a bed at the gospel mission near Centennial Park, but usually he had no choice but to sleep wherever he could find soft ground, like in the city’s cemeteries. His days were spent looking for work. Through local ministries, he found a way to get a shower every morning, along with clean, presentable used clothes. I commented that his well-groomed appearance and good communication skills were qualities that should have made him highly employable. LaMar nodded politely, responding to my thoughtless statement by explaining that even more than cleanliness and intelligence, most interviewers expect applicants to provide a permanent address on applications.
After a time of prayer, we went our separate ways. There may have been celebrities on the giant screen overhead, but it was LaMar I was thinking about, not Michael or Farrah.
On our last day in the city, I had the privilege of preaching at the free breakfast the team cooked and served to the homeless at Eagle’s Nest Ministries, our base of operations in Atlanta. I looked into the faces of the suffering men who had come for the meal, and there was our friend LaMar, giving me an encouraging smile and nod. My text was Luke 8, the account of the demon-possessed man who slept in the graveyard and was delivered by Jesus.
After the meal, I stood by to greet the men as they left. As LaMar and I shook hands, the young man in line behind him smiled whimsically and asked, “Why didn’t you say a prayer for Michael, preacher?”
I thought for a second. “Because I want to pray for the living,” I said. The young man shrugged.
“You do that for me, will you, Jim?” LaMar said with a wink, turning to head back out to the street. “You just go ahead and keep on praying for the living.”