My mother grew up in rural poverty in the 1940s and 1950s. That wasn’t unusual for the Deep South at the time. As my father tells it, “We didn’t know how poor we were because everybody around here was poor back then.” My mother’s lack, though, was far worse than most people’s, because her home lacked not only money, but love.
Her stepfather, long dead now, was a cruel man with a foul mouth, a hot temper, and a habit of beating his children – or at least the child that wasn’t his by nature. I recalled from my own youth my mother speaking well of her Uncle Jimmy, her mother’s brother, as one of the only bright lights in the darkness of her childhood. Uncle Jimmy – James Fletcher -- and Aunt Ethel Mae lived several hours away, in far north Louisiana, but my mother cherished every moment with them.
When Uncle Jimmy died recently, I offered to drive Mama to the funeral. As we made our way north through the hardscrabble Mississippi Delta towns, I asked my mother why Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Ethel Mae, neither of whom I knew, had meant so much to her as a child. She thought about it for a moment.
“Because they didn’t drink, and they didn’t curse,” she said. “They were gentle, and they were good.”
Mama explained that as long as Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Ethel Mae were in the world, she knew that there was hope.
We pulled into the parking lot of a red-brick Southern Baptist church in blue-collar West Monroe – a mile or two, in fact, from the headquarters of the famous Duck Commander family. This was Uncle Jimmy’s church for most of his life. He had been a paper mill worker, and lived in a house on Nat Street, in the shadow of the mill.
I had met Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Ethel Mae once or twice, when I was a small boy, but hadn’t seen either for decades. I didn’t recognize the small, shrunken man lying in the coffin. I barely recognized Aunt Ethel Mae, once so vigorous, now bent and white-haired and disappearing into the fog of old age.
During the service, people rose from their pews to testify to the character of Uncle Jimmy. There was the woman who must have been in her sixties, who said she was raised in that little church. What she remembered was that Brother and Sister Fletcher were always present in the church. Always. They were source of certainty in her life.
A quite elderly woman sitting behind me rose to say that her husband Peewee had been Uncle Jimmy’s best friend at the mill. Peewee died in a car crash when she was pregnant with their twins. Uncle Jimmy acted like a surrogate father to her boys. He never had much money, and had children of his own, but he worked and sacrificed so those fatherless boys on Nat Street could have a life as close to normal as they could.
Uncle Jimmy’s daughter, Linda, stood to tell of how much it meant to her and her siblings to pray nightly with their father and mother, and then, after family prayers were finished, to hear their parents in their bedroom, continuing prayers for them all. Linda credited her father and mother’s example with keeping everyone in subsequent generations faithful to Christ.
An old pastor took to the pulpit to tell the story of how Uncle Jimmy, late in his life and struggling with illness and infirmity, went with the pastor to the war veterans’ home to visit an old acquaintance, and to minister to him.
Over and over, people stood to tell the story of Uncle Jimmy. By the time they all finished, I sat in the pew next to my mother sobbing. I wasn’t crying because I felt the loss of Uncle Jimmy; again, I didn’t really know him. I wept because I was overwhelmed by the goodness of this simple man, and what he meant to so many people with hard lives.
When they carried his coffin out of the church, I knew in my heart that a saint was passing among us, and was that very day in heaven, receiving many crowns of glory.
The world doesn’t see the Uncle Jimmys in our midst. He was a quiet, humble working man who lived in an unlovely part of our country, and who did little more than go to church faithfully and love and serve the people around him. The greatness of Uncle Jimmy’s life has a lesson for us all.
Many of us wonder what God has for us to do in life. We imagine that there is some grand destiny in store for us, if only we can discover it. Uncle Jimmy’s story tells us that the opportunities for greatness are around us every day, no matter how humble our station in life. Uncle Jimmy did not set out to become a great man. He only wanted to do as Jesus had done: to love God and other people, to pray, and to help wherever he could. Over the course of a long life, that added up. The value of Uncle Jimmy’s life was not only his good deeds, but in his good example. He had no idea who was watching him. There was the woman who, as a child, saw in him an icon of fidelity and constancy within the church community. There was the widow who didn’t have to fear for her fatherless boys, because of him.
There was also the woman – my mother -- who, as a frightened little girl living with a terrible secret, who saw in Uncle Jimmy a flesh-and-blood sign that the world wasn’t only chaos and cruelty, but that people could be good. On the long drive back home, I thought about how liberating it is to know that the kind of holiness that Uncle Jimmy, the kindly Baptist mill worker, embodied is open to all of us. There is nothing standing in the way of any of us … but ourselves.
Knowing that makes you free, because it means you don’t have to wait on others, or on God, to create the conditions for your spiritual healing. But it’s also a fearful thing, because that freedom also makes you responsible. The hard truth is this: the only real tragedy in one’s life is to fail to be an Uncle Jimmy.
Rod Dreher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org