DUTCHTOWN – Standing on a street corner, wearing a shoulder-to-ankle white cape and a hat and grasping a long wooden staff, Neal Thompson is the image of Gandalf from “The Lord of the Rings.”
If you speak to Thompson, though, you’ll hear about Jesus and about how Thompson has walked around 45 states preaching about Him and depending on the generosity of strangers for food and shelter.
Thompson will talk about how he’s lived in many different places, inside and out, and worked as a “jack of all trades.”
“Now I’m here to fulfill the scriptures and the Holy Bible,” Thompson said.
He’ll share how people, including his children, turned against him after he started wearing the outfit in 1988. If he goes on long enough, he’ll talk about his miserable childhood, particularly when he was in foster care, between the ages of 10 and 17.
Thompson explained Tuesday morning why he wore the outfit: “It shows godliness, holiness, purity and righteousness.”
At that moment, he was without the garb but still sporting a bushy gray beard. He sat in a booth at the Hardees on South Broadway eating his breakfast. Sometimes he’d smile and say a friendly word about Jesus to a man or woman walking by. Once, he gave money to a homeless person.
Recently, he’d been at St. Louis City Hall and the Thomas Eagleton Federal Courthouse protesting legalized abortion and same-sex marriage and speaking against what he believes is a wrong interpretation of separation of church and state.
He kept speaking, about how corporations, business people and politicians stole the land and how white people hurt African-Americans and Native Americans.
“My job is to bless ’em, to scare the devil out of them and to put the fear of God in them,” Thompson said.
The message is bound to antagonize many, attract some and cause others to walk by indifferently. Whatever the reaction, his words and garb may in part be the result of a more-than-painful childhood.
Growing up, he was frozen, starved, tortured and molested.
“Every day, I think about it,” he said.
He figures he has a third-grade education.
The story may begin in Troy, Mo., before he came to north St. Louis. The first time he heard about God, he said, was when he walked by a house where four black women were sitting on the porch. One of them said, “You better be a good little white boy. God is watching you.”
Thompson came to north St. Louis at the age of 9 from Hammond, Ind., with his mother and three siblings. The next year, he began a process that led him through numerous foster homes and state institutions for boys.
At one institution, he was one of about 170 boys in 12 cottages.
“We had to walk to breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week,” Thompson said. “That was rough, man – rain, sleet and snow, we were walking.”
Even worse was the physical abuse, Thompson said. Sometimes, he ran away with his brother, who often stayed with him.
It should have helped when his mother, his brother and his sister came for a visit. But it didn’t.
“My mom used to show up drunk. But I survived,” Thompson said. “I didn’t have no dad. I saw him nine times in nine years. So my mom was by herself. Nobody was teaching me wrong from right.”
One factor would help him: “When they took me to foster homes, they always took me to church,” he said. In one case, his foster parents were custodians at a Lutheran church. Their house was connected to the church.
“I spent a lot of time in there talking to God,” Thompson said.
But it wasn’t enough to change his direction.
When he was about 21, he got drunk at a party next to the Mississippi River and decided to jump in and swim across. After a while, he was exhausted and sure he would soon drown. He told God he’d serve him if he’d get out alive.
Along came a boat that rescued him, as well as a friend who swam out.
Of course he got out alive, and of course he didn’t serve God afterwards. He lived with a woman for 10 years and had a son in 1977 and two daughters in 1981. He also did some terrible things on his own.
But a turnaround came in the late 1980s. He was baptized in 1986 and started wearing his garb in 1988. His children turned against him, but that didn’t matter. He eventually took in 13 children who served as his family.
By his numbers – which nobody is around to dispute – he’s been kicked out of 11 services. He’s walked 34,000 miles around the country in 22 years, been stopped by police 454 times and put in jail five times.
Sometimes, he said, someone will put him up in a motel room. Other times, he’ll rest his head in a homeless shelter, in the woods or the side of the road.
“I’ve covered every inch of St. Louis and really the state of Missouri. There’s no place I haven’t been,” he said.
Today, Thompson lives on a small disability payment because of arthritis in his neck and right shoulder. He lives in the Maryville Gardens apartments at 4257 Nebraska Avenue.
He says some people love him, some hate him and some people don’t know what to think.
To them, he’ll talk about the terrible things that happened to him, along with the bad things he’s done. Then he’ll talk about his own solution.