Walking together

Volunteers serve hot dogs in an abandoned parking lot at Meeting and Jackson streets.

About 50 men and women, hungry and sweaty under the blazing afternoon sun, line up across a vacant parking lot on Meeting Street.

A ceaseless herd of cars and trucks thunders by, drivers glancing at those gathered for the Hot Dog Ministry, a Christian volunteer-run effort to feed the city’s homeless with a portable table, grill, hot dogs and prayer.

Wayne Weart, a Medical University of South Carolina pharmacy and family medicine professor, steps forward to lead a prayer. He warns that God allows people to get pushed to a breaking point.

“But never past it,” he assures.

“Faith grows only when it’s stretched — stretched to a breaking point,” Weart tells the group, some fragile and timeworn, many calloused by the hardships of homelessness.

Across Meeting Street, a thin man in a wheelchair watches as traffic rumbles between him and a much-needed dinner.

Hot dog volunteer Nathan Mansell hurries over to steer Mikell Felder across one set of lanes. They pause atop a thin center strip of concrete median.

Mansell stands protectively behind his friend, risking the wrath of vehicles that don’t slow for a man in a wheelchair, much less one standing.

Finally, Mansell gets Felder to the food, and to all that he has provided this fellow man. Including the hope of walking again.

At one time, Felder thought nobody heard his cries for help.

That might have been because they were muffled by alcohol, drugs and a mean streak that got him into enough fights to earn him the nickname Dusty. Felder was trying to survive in a homeless man’s Charleston, one just a few blocks but worlds away from a tourism-rich stretch of Meeting Street.

He was born nearby, but his parents died long ago. Other relationships failed, too.

“I’ve been by myself,” he says.

Felder’s worst times began in 1991, when a car struck him, leaving him with a mangled leg and a broken spirit. He sank deeper into drugs and alcohol until infection took hold. In 2007, doctors removed his leg and told Felder to quit drinking and start dialysis. He says he did both.

Then he suffered four seizures one day. Between each, he surfaced into clarity.

“I could have been gone,” he recalls.

Instead, he asked God to save him, both in life and soul.

“When the Lord touched me, he took all that anger away,” Felder says. “He made me at peace.”

By then, Mansell and his wife, Hillary, had joined a group of young volunteers who turned out with a grill and hot dogs every Tuesday evening. They fed homeless folks in a parking lot near Crisis Ministries, Charleston’s homeless shelter.

Today, three to 25 volunteers from local churches show up to serve nearly 350 hot dogs most weekday evenings.

As more volunteers came, Mansell took time to talk with the people gathered, to learn their stories, to know them as more than masses at the ketchup line.

All signs warned him to stay away from Felder.

“Nobody wanted to talk to him because he was so mean to everybody,” Mansell recalls. “But for some reason, I felt called or led to help him.”

Mansell struck up some small talk and showed his concern.

“I’ve been an angry person. I would fight with you in a heartbeat,” Felder admits. “But he showed me love and cared about me.”

Beyond faith, they couldn’t be more different.

Mansell, a clean-cut 24-year-old, grew up without his mother and questioned God’s existence. But as an adult, he found a strong faith and became active at East Cooper Baptist in Mount Pleasant.

Felder, a crusty 52-year-old, had a temper that still flared at times despite his newfound heart for Jesus.

None of that mattered.

“The lines and boundaries that society has drawn are banished because God created us all,” Mansell says. “No matter where we are in life, it makes no difference.”

But it isn’t always easy.

One recent week, Mansell brought Felder an apple, a treat.

But years without dental care left Felder with few teeth.

He couldn’t bite into it. He admits he snapped at his friend.

Mansell tries to let it roll off.

“We all mess up,” he says. “Just because God saved you doesn’t mean you won’t mess up again.”

The next week, Mansell hands Felder a soft breakfast bar and gets him two hot dogs.

Felder wheels into the lot’s only shade, a thin strip cast by a pole, while he eats.

No rush, but eat up, Mansell says. He has far greater plans for Felder than hot dogs.

It so happened that just as Felder called out to God, Mansell became a physical therapy student at MUSC.

And as a student, he began volunteering at the MUSC CARES Clinic, a student-run program that provides free care to uninsured or underinsured patients.

“Things lined up almost too perfectly,” Mansell says.

Now every Tuesday, he loads Felder into his car and transports him from dialysis to the Hot Dog Ministry.

Every Wednesday, he takes Felder to the CARES Clinic.

There, he works with Dr. Sara Kraft, a physical therapy professor who became involved in Felder’s care. She asked Floyd Brace Co. to donate a prosthetic leg to Felder, which it did.

Still, homelessness makes nothing easy, not even on MUSC’s modern campus.

Inside the clinic, Felder lies face down on a square table.

For most people, this would be comfortable.

For Felder, it’s pain.

Without a bed, he sleeps sitting in his wheelchair. He rarely stretches out. His hip flexors have contracted into knots. If he cannot stretch them to stand straight, he won’t be able to walk on his prosthetic limb.

At the clinic, he gets help stretching the muscles.

Mansell also pays for Felder to stay in a hotel once a week so he can bathe and rest in a bed.

“It’s almost medically necessary to get him in that hotel so he can stretch out,” Mansell says. “If he’s not lying down and stretching out, it’s an uphill battle.”

Felder simply needs a bed and a place to live.

Trouble is, his years of drinking and fighting have left him with burned bridges to Crisis Ministries and other housing prospects. Being in a wheelchair eliminates other options.

He also has kidney and heart failure, hepatitis C, HIV and myriad other health problems.

“I could die any time,” he says. “Jesus says if you buy into his rules and walk in his righteousness, he can take me to heaven. I don’t want to go to hell. If it’s like this, I don’t want to go.”

Lying on his stomach is causing pain to radiate into the small of his back.

“It hurts real bad,” he murmurs. “But I can take it for a while.”

He adds: “I want to walk.”

When Felder can’t take the pain anymore, he rolls onto his side, his frayed Hardcore Carnivore cap resting beside him.

Exhaling, eyes closed, his head sinks into a soft white pillow, a luxury he rarely knows.

Today, Felder calls Mansell his brother in Christ and “the brother I never had.”

“Somebody is paying attention to me now,” he says. “I wake up in the morning and say, ‘Thank you, Lord, for another day.’ ”

After Felder rests on the table, Mansell and his colleagues fit the prosthetic leg onto the remains of Felder’s own leg.

Felder eases off the table, grabs hold of a walker and, with Mansell behind him, steps with the limb. It is a long, steel pole with knee and ankle joints and a white tennis shoe at the foot.

“I can’t control it,” Felder says, eyes closed in concentration.

Mansell coaches him, hands on Felder’s hips, offering the guiding hand of a medical worker — and a trusted friend.

“Step all the way through,” Mansell encourages.

With help from student Alli Foster, he steers Felder through several successful steps and helps him pivot to turn.

“Shift that weight,” Mansell encourages. “Good!”

Felder walks, step by ginger step, through the therapy area.

His progress encourages everyone. If only it could last.

Because where will he sleep until his next visit? “Any place I feel safe,” he says.

By the time he returns to the clinic next week, his muscles will have tightened from another seven days in his wheelchair, and the therapy will start awfully close to square one.

Yet, Mansell will keep bringing him, trying to feed his friend in body and spirit.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b. hawes.