By Riley Manning
In 1997, Tupelo native Michael Blackwell was at the end of his rope.
Since his return from the Vietnam War, the special forces veteran had battled post traumatic stress disorder, and in 1985, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Bone marrow transplants left him in constant pain, but his true breaking point was when his wife divorced him.
“I was ready to die when she left,” he said. “I was scared I was going to take my own life.”
But in the midst of his pain, Blackwell said he cried out to God, and got a response that led him across the country and back again.
How much can you handle?
“The Lord will never give you more than you can handle,” Blackwell said. “Well, I said, ‘Lord, I can’t take any more. You’re going to have to cure me or kill me.’”
Right then, Blackwell said, the pain eased up, and he received a vision from Christ.
“He didn’t talk soft, either,” Blackwell said. “He talked like a drill sergeant. He said, ‘Get up, you got work to do.’”
Blackwell said he was told to build a 10’ by 6’ cross, sell his belongings, and walk out into the world as the apostles had. Furthermore, he was supposed to carry out this mission in his old military fatigues.
“I thought I was flipping out, that I was mentally ill,” Blackwell said. “But it was so vivid, and it’s not like I could get any worse off. I guess it took me being so low, he got my attention.”
So Blackwell followed his instructions, built the cross and started walking north. He effectively made himself homeless. As a veteran, he said he had put his life on the line before, but still worried about the hazards out on the road alone. He could be run over, robbed or worse.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing out there, except being open to what I had been told to do,” he said.
To his surprise, people took kindly to Blackwell and his cross, giving him rides and occasionally food and a place to sleep. But on most nights, Blackwell camped on the side of the road in his tent.
Six months from the start of his walk, he found himself in Washington D.C., smack in the middle of a million-man assembly by the male conservative Christian organization, Promise Keepers, who occupied the Washington Mall for a day of personal repentance and prayer. There he had the opportunity to share his testimony with dozens of listeners.
But his real education took place in the homeless shelter and rehabilitation center, where he helped with chores in exchange for a place to sleep.
“In my experience, most homeless people are in their situation by circumstance, not by choice,” he said. “In a way, they are more loving because they don’t look down on others so much. The Bible says those who are forgiven much, love much.”
When the Promise Keepers rally disbanded, Blackwell started the journey home to Tupelo. But 100 miles or so down the road, he came down with an ear infection. Due to his weak immune system, decimated by cancer treatments, Blackwell hopped a bus back.
Blackwell became an ordained Seventh Day Adventist, but his attempts at preaching never quite panned out.
“I felt incomplete,” he said. “I couldn’t help feeling like the trip to Washington wasn’t all I was supposed to do.”
In 2011, Blackwell decided to take his cross back to Washington, where he walked the Mall for an entire month, again immersing himself in the community of D.C.’s homeless.
“I really got to know them, and I realized that the Lord had made me homeless on the first trip so he could work through me,” he said. “So I returned with a real burden for the homeless. My marching orders became to help them.”
Blackwell came back to Tupelo with a more acute eye for their needs.
What he’d learned, he said, was that the homeless do not exist in a vacuum. Their problems ultimately become the problems of the entire community.
“When I got back from my second trip, I met a 25-year-old homeless woman with a beautiful 5-year-old girl,” he said. “If she doesn’t get help, she’ll grow up hating the law, hating society. We can’t shirk our responsibility for this problem by stereotyping it.”
Blackwell said the power to bring that help lies in Tupelo’s religious community, rather than its political one. Currently, he is seeking to bring together religious, city, and business leaders from the community, to formulate a concrete effort to lend a hand to Tupelo’s homeless.
“The churches have ample resources, it’s just a matter of getting everyone’s input and getting everyone focused,” he said. “Most of us who are blessed don’t know what it’s like to be down and out. I’ve been there.”
Blackwell said he believes the lord implants a special ministry in everyone. To see what you’re supposed to do, he said, immerse yourself in scripture, and have an open heart.
“At the worst time of my life, the Lord told me to do something that scared me, and it ended up being the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me,” he said.