A Samaritan in Hattiesburg

A magazine I once read had a feature on “Southern hospitality.” I remember the photos: a big porch with white pillars. A carved wooden pineapple hung by the door. Inside, some plump sofas and delicate curtains. A life of plenty and ease. I’d be willing to be pampered in a setting like that. But, to me, “Southern hospitality” will always look less like that mansion, and more like a one-room apartment in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. For a time in my life, I sang in a band out of Austin you would not have enjoyed. Mostly, we played in bars to a crowd of ten or so listless drunks. Any money we made went straight into the van. So, pulling into Hattiesburg one night, we were clueless about what we would do for our lodging.

The club was nothing to look at: a cinder-block structure behind a Conoco station. But the parking lot contained the kind of nice cars that go home to places that have room to spare. My requests from the stage for lodging were charming, and frequent. But, as people filtered in and out through the night, no one stepped forward to say, “Stay with me.” The crowd started to thin. Then, the houselights went on. We were milling around, still unclaimed and unsure, when word arrived that, at last, someone was willing.

When she arrived, our savior was exhausted. She’d just finished a shift at a place where she worked as an exotic dancer. Had only meant to come by to pick up her boyfriend—a man with long hair who told us he played bass. She dispensed with small-talk, said, “Follow me. It’s a ways.” And it was. In the dark, we would not have been able to find our way out of the part of town where she lived. There was a yellow linoleum floor for throwing down sleeping bags. The boyfriend wanted to stay up, talking music. But she had to get up in the morning for her other job. So, that was that. We slept soundly till morning.

In the Gospel of Luke, somebody asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” This is when Jesus tells the story of a man knocked in a ditch, passed up by the ones he knows as his own people. Instead, goes the story, who helps out is a Samaritan—the last person on earth the man would have expected. In a middle-class church, you’ll hear the story as if nobody present had ever been near a ditch, much less actually in one. As if the congregation is brimming with Samaritans, who cannot wait to help. But on a night in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the one who gave shelter was far from that church. She had nothing to spare. No plump sofa, no delicate curtains, no carved wooden pineapple hung by the door. No spare bed, no spare towel. Not even spare time. What she did have, however, was a plain sense of kinship with absolute strangers. She was not who I’d figured my neighbor would be. But to the person who asked him, “And who is my neighbor,” Jesus answered by describing a tired exotic dancer in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

You might imagine that this could have happened in any location. That it was just hospitality, nothing Southern about it. And, in a way, you’d be right. Except listen: in the morning, before she left for work, hurried as she was, she made sure to take time to fix us all eggs.

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