James Toney, at his mother Clophine's burial service

James Toney, at his mother Clophine’s burial service

From The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, a country preacher and childhood friend of mine named James Toney eulogizes his Cajun mother, Clophine, who died with a body gnarled and broken by a lifetime of hard field work, a mind ravaged by dementia, and penniless — but also a wealthy woman, bound for glory:

“During the fall, my mother would go out and pick up pecans,” he began, in his husky voice. “She wasn’t very well educated. Today, they tryin’ to educate us in everything. Gotta stay with the next game, gotta make sure we go to college. We can’t get too far behind, because we might not make enough money, and that would make our lives miserable. My God, we gettin’ educated in everything, but we not gettin’ educated in morals. We not gettin’ educated in sacrifice.”

James said his mother was poor and uneducated, but during pecan season, she worked hard gathering nuts from under every tree she could find.

“She was carryin’ a cross,” he said. “Because let me tell you something, if you don’t sacrifice for your brother, if you don’t sacrifice for your neighbor, you not carrying your cross.”

Miss Clophine, James reminded us, took the money she made selling pecans and went to the dollar store in St. Francisville, where, despite her own great need, she spent it on presents for friends and family. I thought of the tube socks and other small gifts that Miss Clo gave Ruthie and me every Christmas.

“Aunt Grace told me the other day that of all the presents she got from everybody, those meant the most,” James said. “Why? Because there was so much sacrifice. She sacrificed everything she made, just to give.”

Read Little Way to get the rest of this remarkable sermon about sacrificial love and the widow’s mite. That there is true religion. This afternoon, James came by to see me, to tell me how much the book meant to him. That, in turn, meant the world to me. We talked about the part in the book in which I mentioned that his late father, Mr. Huey, used to come by and bring us watermelons from his garden when Ruthie and I were kids, but always politely declined an invitation to come inside. I’d written that “poor country people are sometimes like that.”

“It’s true!” James said. “My wife said her daddy was the same way.”

I asked James why he thought that was. He said he thought his father, who had no education, and who was very poor, didn’t think he deserved to come into the house. That made me so sad to hear, but that’s how Mr. Huey wanted it.

“I’ve surpassed my dad in education,” said James, who graduated high school. “I’ve surpassed him in an ability to speak in public. I’m still poor, but I’ve surpassed him in salary. I’m doing better than he ever did. But if I don’t have the ability to sacrifice, I ain’t got nothin’. He had that ability. He sacrificed. A humble man will sacrifice. A rich man, he’s too proud to sacrifice. That’s why the Lord comes against a rich man.”

I’m telling you, the Spirit rests on this Louisiana country preacher. I’m proud to call him my friend, and honored to be able to share James and his hard-won wisdom with the world through Little Way. These people who live in my part of the world are treasures.

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