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Alva James-Johnson: Homeless people need grace

Living on the street can take a toll on one's life, not just physically, but spiritually, too.

Minister Ed Grifenhagen has seen it up close through a ministry called M2540. The name of the organization is based on Matthew 25:40, which admonishes Christians to minister to the "least of these" as if ministering to Christ.

That verse can be a bit tricky, however, because "the least" from a human perspective really are the most significant in God's eyes, the Good Book says.

So I recently talked with Minister Ed about his ministry while reflecting on the life of Greg Johnson, the brother of Mayor Pro-Tem Evelyn Turner Pugh.

Greg, a former high school athlete, was a college graduate who worked as a high school coach and firefighter in his young adult life. He died a homeless man on Jan. 5 after struggling with a crack addiction for three decades. He died a day shy of his 61st birthday.

I wrote about Greg in last week's column from the perspective of his sister who said she loved her brother and regretted that he had squandered his life.

But Minister Ed said he spent a lot of time with Greg, and he believes he experienced God's grace before taking his last breath. He shared that information while doing the eulogy at Greg's funeral, and he hopes it gives the family comfort.

In a recent interview, Minister Ed said he first met Greg in June while feeding the homeless near Third Avenue and 17th Street. At the time, he knew nothing about Greg's background or his relationship to Pugh, he said. Greg seemed like a nice guy in a bad situation.

"More than any of the other guys that we serve, he was always smiling," Minister Ed recalled. "It was obvious to me that he was a believer because there was a countenance on his face that was joy even in the midst of a pretty big trial. I mean, when you're living on the streets, life is not a bed of roses."

Minister Ed said he visited Greg regularly and the two would hang out. As they talked, he discovered that Greg -- who once was married with a son -- had many regrets and desperately needed God's forgiveness.

"We find that with many homeless people," Minister Ed said. "They have difficulty forgiving themselves, and that was part of Greg's life. He needed grace, not just from God, but also from his family."

Minister Ed said he tried to encourage Greg and began seeing changes. Greg had been sober for several months and was trying to get a job, he said, but his plans were derailed by a hernia operation and heart problems.

One day he learned that Greg was in the hospital. He tried tracking him down and found out he had been moved to Gentiva Hospice.

Minister Ed said he and others in the ministry sat with Greg, read Psalms and sang to him before his death. Pugh and other relatives also visited Greg at hospice, and he died in peace.

"After about three or four days, he really went downhill and was pretty unresponsive," the minister said. "But we were still right there with him."

Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.