Allen came to Back Bay Mission several months ago as a client needing emergency assistance.
His initial story was all too familiar: he was hungry, homeless, and without any means of financial or emotional support.
Clinging closely to our mission and mandate to heed Christ's call and serve the needy, Back Bay Mission staff did everything in our power to help this desperate man. We found him odd jobs around the facility for which he received modest payment.
We gave him food and clothing, and a frequent listening ear.
We worked with him to retrieve his impounded truck from the authorities and return it to working order, knowing that the truck was his one prized possession and frequently his shelter.
As the months wore on, Allen took up residence in a basement room of one of our buildings, at first without our realizing it. Finally, in a revelation that made sudden sense out of much that had transpired, Allen told me the simple but hard truth: he was addicted to gambling.
Here was a capable, reasonably intelligent man who had fallen prey to the newest victimizer on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, a burgeoning casino industry boasting 11 casinos to date.
In the midst of it all, this much was clear: Back Bay Mission had become Allen's refuge from the storm that was his daily existence.
Allen continues to be part of our life at Back Bay Mission, appearing at random with endless new sets of problems. At times, our experience with him has been frustrating.
Yet at other moments a part of me has given thanks for Allen, for he has constantly embodied and pressed the question that we must always ask ourselves: "What does it mean to show Christ-like compassion in this specific situation?"
Though the answer to this question is often hard to discern, I cherish the question itself.
For it is this very question that is at the heart of who we are as a service agency of the church, guiding our struggle to live faithfully and with love.
Compassion's challenge can sometimes be disquieting and disheartening, but it must never fail to be a challenge we embrace.
Shari Prestemon is executive director of UCC-related Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Miss. Focus on Faith is a reader-written column to help others grow in their faith.