Chris Colley is a holy man who sleeps under bridges. This year he has also slept in a preacher’s garage apartment and recently camped behind the farm shop of a Mennonite in Aberdeen. He’s just finished reading a book about Daniel Boone and Abraham Lincoln he got while in Hopkinsville, Ky., but mostly he reads from a red, palm-sized Gideon’s Bible.
This past week Colley camped near Mayhew under the southernmost of the two Highway 82 bridges over 45 Alternate. By the time you read this he will have moved on. Colley calls home wherever he happens to be, and most of the time that’s outdoors. For that reason, he’s headed south for the winter; exactly where, he couldn’t tell you.
“This man is traveling wherever the Lord is leading,” Phillip Beasley chimed in. Beasley was one of two parties who suddenly appeared at Colley’s campsite just after I stopped there at the end of the day Friday. Beasley, oddly immaculate in a crisp button-down shirt and dress pants, said he was on his way home to Memphis after a business trip to Mississippi State University.
“I just had to stop,” Beasley said. Moments later, as he and Colley were having a detailed conversation about St. Paul’s travels to Asia Minor and the women who befriended him there, Jessica Fly and her boyfriend, Gerald Payne, arrived with a large bottle of Simply Orange orange juice, a bag of ice and a bottle of vitamin C tablets.
I felt at the center of an odd but interesting convergence. Does this guy stay this busy throughout the day?
Fly said she first saw Colley the day before as she was driving from her home in Gore Springs to Aliceville, Ala., where she is working on the women’s’ prison under construction there. She stopped to talk with him.
Friday, Fly had celebrated her birthday at Old Venice in Starkville and brought Colley a pizza and a piece of her birthday cake.
When asked if he wanted anything else, Colley told Fly and Payne he needed some vitamin C. They had left him with the pizza and lit out for the West Point Walmart.
Beasley, done with his scriptural discussion, asked Colley to pose for a picture. He put his arm around the minister’s shoulders and with his iPhone took a photograph of the two of them. He then asked me to pose with them, and I obliged, not knowing why.
“This has been great,” Beasley said. “We’re kindred spirits.
“I’m asking you to pray for me,” he told Colley. “I’m in trouble with my wife; I don’t want to be in trouble with God.”
Colley assured him he would, and Beasley got into his car, did a U-turn and honked as he sped north toward Memphis.
By then it was dark and cool. Speeding cars thumped overhead. The roar of the passing trucks was amplified by the bridges. I invited Colley to sit in my van where we could talk in relative quiet and comfort.
Colley seems to operate in two modes: either that of a sidewalk evangelist or a practical, savvy traveler who has survived 25 years on the road. He’s 55, and says he has walked through 44 states.
Colley doesn’t say much about his life: born in Dallas, a child of the 60s, drug addictions. At 27, he got into a rehab program and “exchanged drugs and alcohol for Jesus.”
At 30, he began his walking ministry.
“I preach the word of Jesus Christ just like Jesus did,” he said. “The Lord told me people will come to me.”
I’m not sure how people choose to stop and interact with Colley. There is no visible evidence he is anything other than a vagrant hanging out beside the road. I searched him out after a friend told me about him.
Colley travels with a three-wheel push cart made from bicycles welded together. He sleeps in the open on cool nights, in a tent on warmer ones, “to keep the critters away,” he says. “This is a spidery area.”
“I’m an old cardboard box city guy,” he said, referring to a homeless encampment in L.A. “I learned from them.”
People who give him rides are usually pulling trailers. Folks offer him places to stay. He doesn’t accept every invitation.
“The Lord gives us the power of discernment,” he said.
“Someone will take me in,” he said about the winter ahead. “I don’t know who.”
Colley says he begins each day with a prayer vigil and, if time allows, Bible reading. He says God often directs him to verses in the New Testament that will be useful in his ministry that day.
He eats at 11 and 4. He doesn’t drink coffee or soft drinks, only water and fruit juices.
“You keep your body healthy; you don’t concentrate on food,” he said.
“Every once in a while people bring me eggs or pancakes from McDonald’s. If I’m hungry, I eat them; if not I chunk them.”
“The No. 1 thing,” he says, “is to take care of your feet.” Colley wears boots a veteran of Desert Storm gave him.
“These shoes stay on me until they fall off,” he said. He wears a knit cap, work-shirt, windbreaker and work-pants.
“People are all caught up in this pursuit of the American Dream,” he said, turning to less prosaic matters. “Americans are losing heart because they are not finding it.
“There’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t leave God out. You can’t gain religiousness through selfishness.
“We’re all sinners, including me,” he said.
“The crucial question for all of us,” Colley continued, “is, Who am I? Why am I here? and Where am I going? Every one of those are answered by God through Jesus.”
It’s almost 8. For two hours I had been with this self-proclaimed man of God as he talked and listened to others. I think about a child who will arrive home that night. Maybe we will go out to eat a warm meal.
Chris Colley will go back under the bridge, get in his sleeping bag and sleep to the sound of speeding vehicles. He is doing the Lord’s work. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
I tell him I need to go. He asked me my name again and shook my hand as he got out.
“God bless you brother,” he said, closing the door between us.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.