WARNER ROBINS -- His face was disfigured by cancer, he had no home and he panhandled for money to survive. But 45-year-old Whit Martin was richer than most.
He was wealthy in friends.
Jenice King of Warner Robins was among them. She spoke Saturday at his memorial service in the chapel of McCullough Funeral Home. About 150 people joined her for the service and burial afterward at Magnolia Cemetery.
The memorial and burial were gifts of the family-run funeral home in response to an outpouring from people in the community who did not want Martin to be buried as a pauper without a service. He was killed March 16 when struck by a pickup truck while riding his bicycle along Watson Boulevard.
People who had befriended him spoke at his service, including a Pentecostal pastor whose church had given Martin food, had him to come in from the cold and shared their faith with him. Others volunteered as pallbearers. Many shared stories about Martin before the service.
A man of faith
Describing him as a dear friend, King said she first met Martin outside the Wal-Mart on Booth Road. Hed ridden up on his bicycle and tapped on her window asking for change. She initially shunned him.
But as she started to pray, King said, she found herself practically running into Wal-Mart to give him $20.
When I handed him that $20, he said, Maam, did you know that this $20 is like a million dollars to me? May God bless you. King recalled. And I thought, Wow, God has blessed me.
And Whit blessed me way more than I blessed him with that little $20 that day. I felt his kindness, I felt his sincerity and I walked away that day with a special place in my heart for Whit Martin, she said.
King said she wondered, perhaps as others did, how Martin used the money she gave him. Did he use it for food and shelter, or did he use it for alcohol or drugs?
She started asking around town and found that most felt he was sincere and that his needs were legitimate.
King said Martins story reminded her of the biblical story of Job, whose faith in God did not waiver despite severe suffering. Martin kept his Bible strapped to the back of his bicycle and he knew the Scriptures, his friends said,
King started sharing Martins story with others.
I used his story as testimony about his faith in Jesus Christ and how it never faltered in spite of his circumstances, King said.
One day, she spent about two hours with Martin sitting on a bench outside of Wal-Mart. He wept in her arms and told her about his life.
He was a troubled young man through his childhood and into his teens and adulthood. But as young adult, he got his GED, learned a trade, got a job and was making good money. He got married -- twice. He had a son named Chad.
He was quick to roll up his sleeve and show you Chads name tattooed on his arm, King said. Life was good for Whit for awhile.
Then he got cancer in his face.
The cancer, the surgeries and the radiation left his face badly disfigured, King said. He told her his wife left him and took his son.
Then Whit lost his job, and he said he believed that was because of his face.
He said he spent many years looking for his son and no one would tell him where his son was and believed that was because of his face. Those series of unfortunate events began Whits journey into homelessness. It changed the course of his life forever, King said.
Slipping through the cracks
Martin lived in Macon under the Spring Street bridge before coming to Warner Robins.
And like a lot of people who are homeless, he just kind of slipped through the cracks, King said. There were a lot of organizations that could help him. A lot of times people who are homeless, they just cant live a normal life. Their reality is just not our reality.
Martin chose to stay in Warner Robins because it was a good town with good people, King recalled him saying. A few times, people helped him get in public housing, and he lived in public housing off and on.
He said it was really bad, King said. He said, Id rather live on the streets than live in public housing. So he would return to his life of homelessness. He did it because there were so many kind and compassionate people that became friends, King said.
Martin also had a room at a Warner Robins hotel from time to time, King said. He received Social Security checks and would stay in the room until his money ran out. Charli Mitchell met Martin at a gasoline pump at the Flash Foods convenience store at Watson Boulevard and Carl Vinson Parkway in March 2013.
She gave him a little money. She told him she didnt know what she could do for him but asked him to meet her at the Krispy Kreme on Watson Boulevard. He showed up with a gift: a huge stuffed animal.
I said, You didnt have to do that and he said, You didnt have to be nice to me, Mitchell recalled.
Mitchell held up the stuffed animal, a dog, at the service. She said she keeps it displayed in her home to remind her of her friend and of his faith.
Martins sister, Delta Dawn Phillips-Pearce of Moultrie, was visibly overcome with emotion Saturday by the stories she heard and by the show of love and support offered at the service.
Theres not enough words to express my thanks and my gratitude, Phillips-Pearce said outside of the service. My brother, after his ordeal with cancer, shut himself off from our family.
We dont understand why and we dont know why, but we respected his wishes, she said. We knew eventually hed come home. We just didnt know it would be like this.
But Walter Peanut Mosher, pastor of the Warner Robins Pentecostal Holiness Church, assured those gathered that Martin has gone to a better home in heaven where his face is no longer disfigured, theres plenty of good food and hes got his own mansion with lots and lots of rooms.
To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.