Roger Alford | Kentucky Today

James Price, left, pets a dog as he talks with Ronnie Neal in Corbin, Ky. Price, a homeless man with an extensive rap sheet, was baptized last Sunday.

Chance encounter with concerned Christian life-changing for homeless man

CORBIN, Ky. (KT) – James Price knows what it’s like to be down and out.

A series of bad decisions had left his life in shambles. He had no money, no car, no home and no hope. But a chance encounter with retired businessman Ronnie Neal would change the trajectory of his life.

Living under a bridge on the outskirts of Corbin, Price, 24, had taken a walk along a rural stretch of highway when he saw Neal loading sheet metal onto a truck. Perhaps, Price thought, that man would be willing to hire me to help.

Neal, 64, saw in Price a young man who needed a hand up, and he was willing to provide that.

“James kind of reminded me a lot of me when I was young,” Neal said. “The only reason I wasn’t homeless after my parents divorced is that my sister married into a family who took me in and let me stay with them when I was a teenager. So, I kind of sympathized with him. I could have very well been under a bridge myself.”

Quality of life has improved for Neal since his early years. He and his wife Janet, members of West Corbin Baptist Church, credit the Lord for that. For Neal, getting on the right path led to a loving wife, a long, successful career in grocery store management, and, most importantly, a close relationship with the Lord.

Neal accepted Price’s offer to work for him that day. They talked as they worked, and Neal learned Price’s circumstances. When the workday ended, Price thought Neal would hand him a few dollars and they’d go their separate ways, never to meet again.

“He looked at me and said ‘there isn’t any man working for me going to live under a bridge,” Price recalled. “He said ‘go get your stuff because you’re going home with me. I broke down right there. I had never had anyone be so kind to me.”

The Neals are unabashedly Christian. Talking about Jesus is as natural to them as talking about their two sons. In their home, Price would get heaping helpings of the gospel, along with country cooking that would pack weight back on the hungry young man.

When the first Sunday rolled around, the Neals didn’t have to ask Price if he’d like to go to church. Price asked if he could go along.

“It hit home with me,” Price said. “I went back with them on Wednesday. The following Sunday is when I got in my heart to go up to the altar and give my life to Christ.”

Price, who has an extensive rap sheet, was baptized last Sunday, during the 100th anniversary celebration of West Corbin Baptist Church, and now he says he regrets all his wasted years when, in his words, he laid around drunk, not knowing there was a better way.

“I know now there’s more to life than that; I learned it from that man,” Price said, pointing to Neal as the two of them stood beneath the bridge where a mixture of rocks, dirt, beer cans, campfire ashes, weeds and poison ivy mingled together.

Price’s parents died when he was a teen. He dropped out of school and has been living on his own since he was 16, working at whatever jobs he could find.

“James was basically dropped off in the world and told to do the best you can,” Neal said. “The conversation James and I have had is this: ‘You chose the wrong fork in the road years ago. You have to go back to the fork where you lost your way, and start over again.”

A year before he met Neal, Price had crashed a motorcycle and spent weeks in the hospital. During that time, he was evicted from his rental home.

“When I left the hospital, I didn’t really have anywhere to go,” he said. “I had various friends I could stay with from day to day. But I had no transportation. No way to get back to work.”

Through the winter, he lived in a Corbin motel that offered cheap weekly rates. When his money ran out, he moved in under the bridge.

Neal said the details of Price’s life are heartbreaking.

“I’m not going to give up on him,” Neal said, looking squarely at the young man wearing new clothes and a big, happy smile.

West Corbin Pastor Albert Jones said his church has seen a redemption story play out in the life of Price, and they’ve watched the Neals live out the gospel message.

“God reached out by his grace, and a life was changed,” Jones said. “Ronnie and Janet Neal are living out the gospel in vivid color.”

Price said he’s pondered that chance meeting with Neal on Friday, July 13, his “lucky” day. Price said he arrived at a firm conclusion: “We met by the grace of God.”

Neal said helping Price was simply the right thing to do.

“The Lord could have sent anybody James’ way,” Neal said. “I just happened to be the one.”