Today I drove my mother to West Monroe, in north Louisiana, for the funeral of her Uncle Jimmy. I say “her” Uncle Jimmy, even though he was my Great Uncle Jimmy, because I didn’t really know him. West Monroe is a long way from St. Francisville, and I only saw Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Ethel Mae two or three times in my childhood. At today’s funeral, I had a glimpse of what I missed.
I remember Uncle Jimmy only through my mother’s stories about him, and how much he and Aunt Ethel meant to my mother as a child. My mom talked about him — talked about them, because it was hard to speak of one without speaking of the other — on the long drive north, through the Mississippi River delta. My mom had a pretty bleak childhood in many ways, growing up in rural poverty in a household lorded over by a brutal father. Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Ethel represented light, and kindness, and tenderness. They were working people — Uncle Jimmy put in long shifts at the paper mill on the banks of the Ouachita River — and Southern Baptists who took their faith seriously.
“They were so good,” Mama said. “I just loved being around them.”
We pulled into the parking lot of the Trinity Baptist Church, a red-brick temple in a working-class neighborhood that had seen better days. This was Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Ethel’s church, and had been for many, many years. Before the service, I met Mildred Chapman, their neighbor. It was her late husband Peewee who led Uncle Jimmy to the Lord so many decades ago. They worked together at the paper mill, and were friends. One day, Peewee walked across the street and asked Jimmy if he knew Jesus. Soon after, Jimmy and Ethel were baptized in that church, and became faithful members.
During the funeral service, a number of people in the congregation stood to say what Uncle Jimmy had meant to them. One older woman said she grew up in that church, and the thing she remembers most is that Brother and Sister Fletcher were there. Always. Always. This theme emerged in the remembrances: the steadfast presence of James and Ethel Fletcher, married 71 years, in the life of this little Baptist congregation.
Uncle Jimmy was a presence in the community, too. He lived on Nat Street, a short walk from the mill. He was a genius with car engines. On the weekends, cars would line up on Nat Street for Uncle Jimmy to give them a tune-up, which he did for free, because this was something he could do for people.
Frail Mildred Chapman stood up behind me to testify on Uncle Jimmy’s behalf. She and Peewee lived on Nat Street too. Peewee was killed in a car crash when Mildred was pregnant with twins. Jimmy became a father figure to her boys, she said. Once he rebuilt a used bicycle for the kids so beautifully that it looked brand-new. Those fatherless boys living on Nat Street in the 1940s (I guess it was) wouldn’t have had anything if not for Uncle Jimmy.
People told these stories about Uncle Jimmy. And they spoke of his abiding sweetness. His daughter Linda recalled how much love her parents had for each other, and showed to their children. How the only disagreements they had amounted to each raising their voice once, and … that was it. How Uncle Jimmy could build anything, but how he and Aunt Ethel loved making quilts together, and how the children’s and grandchildren’s closets are full of their homemade quilts. How they taught their children to pray, and how their children saw their parents praying all the time. Now, said Linda, all the children and grandchildren and even great-grandchildren are faithful to the Lord — this, all because their mother and father were not only steady in their prayerfulness, but made their piety real by their love for each other, and for all. Toward the end of the service, their son Ken, a fine Gospel musician, sang a song to his mother, there to bury the love of her life, thanking her, and thanking him, for all the kindness and sacrifice they had given. He named, in the song, the things Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Ethel did for them. It was a moment of almost unbearable tenderness.
I mustn’t forget what Uncle Jimmy’s grandson Richard said. Over the years, when Richard and his family would drive down from Arkansas to visit, Uncle Jimmy would always tell them goodbye by saying something close to (I didn’t write this down), “Y’all have a safe trip home. I’ll be praying for you. Please call when you get there.” Every time. A week or so ago, with Uncle Jimmy, now 92 and near death, Richard and his family made the pilgrimage to West Monroe for what turned out to be the last time. As they stood at Uncle Jimmy’s bedside to bid him farewell, the old man said to them, “Y’all have a safe trip home. I’ll be praying for you. Please call when you get there.”
Choking back sobs, Richard said, “In those words is that man’s legacy.”
Uncle Jimmy’s old pastor said a few words, beautiful ones — Southern Baptists natural-born know how to preach! — about Brother Fletcher, but the ones I most remember from today had to do with Uncle Jimmy as a model of what it means to be a good man. We look to the athletic field, or the stage, or the screen, for role models, he said, but nobody much looks at a mill worker from Nat Street. Yet anyone who knew James Fletcher saw what it meant to be a good man, and a faithful Christian.
“As Christians, we should look first our Our Lord Jesus Christ for what we should be like,” the preacher said. “But after that, look to our brother James. You can’t find a better role model than him.”
The thing is, those words really did mean something. They weren’t just something nice a man’s pastor said at his funeral. This service lasted nearly two hours, with people standing up talking about Uncle Jimmy’s deeds, the purity of his heart, and constancy of his love for Aunt Ethel, his family, his church, and, well, everyone the Lord sent him to love. I kept thinking about my late sister Ruthie, and what she and Uncle Jimmy had in common: how they both embodied the principle that there are no sermons more powerful than the loving deeds of a righteous man. In a back hall of the church, I saw a Charles Wesley quote pasted to the wall: “Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn.” I don’t know that Uncle Jimmy burned with enthusiasm, but it was plain to me that the man’s heart was an extraordinary source of light and warmth to all who knew him.
I wished I had known him. I sat in my pew, wiping away tears, thinking how Uncle Jimmy makes me want to be a better man. If that’s what a man is, if that’s what a Christian is, then that’s what I want to be.
The French Catholic novelist Léon Bloy, in his book The Woman Who Was Poor, wrote, “There is only one tragedy in the end: not to have been a saint.” To hear about the life of James Fletcher is to understand more deeply what Bloy meant. Uncle Jimmy didn’t have much of anything in the way of education, wealth, standing, or influence in the world. But through the steady practice of faith, hope, and love — active love, in service to his family and his community — he became holy. Every time you came to the Trinity Baptist Church, there were Brother and Sister Fletcher. Every time anybody needed anything, there were Brother and Sister Fletcher. Good, plain, working people, like the others at the Trinity Baptist Church. Uncle Jimmy’s son Ken said in his final words to the mourners that there’s nothing you can take out of this life, except what you poured into the people you knew, and left behind. I did not know Uncle Jimmy, but on evidence of the love he left behind, and to which so many testified today, he walked the little way to heaven right down Nat Street, and goes into his glory laden with treasure.
When the congregation sang “Amazing Grace,” I heard Sister Mildred Chapman’s voice in my ears like the petals of a weary flower, trembling in the breeze. It was one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard. I thought about the people of this little red-brick Baptist church, in the shadow of the paper mill, and Uncle Jimmy, the humble millworker from Nat Street who loved much, and I thought these are surely the richest people in the world.