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St. Jimmy Of Nat Street

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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.

get-attachment-6 [2]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.

 

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14 Comments To "St. Jimmy Of Nat Street"

#1 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 26, 2013 @ 11:00 pm

Sounds like a great man. I don’t know what else there is to say. This does bring back memories of a few fathers of friends in the neighborhood where I grew up, from 2 through 7.

#2 Comment By Anand On April 26, 2013 @ 11:09 pm

Amen. When I think of my own Christian life, I think of a young widow in India with five children, who put them through school with her sewing, and still had a soft heart for every kind of stray. She was my pastor’s mother-in-law and grandmother to much of our congregation. And like your Uncle Jimmy you can still see her impact on her children and grandchildren.

You don’t talk much about your mother, Rod, but she seems like a Proverbs 32 woman of valor- another one whose blessing flows outwards.

#3 Comment By patrick regan On April 27, 2013 @ 12:14 am

Rod,
Thank you for your succinct and compassionate description of Pawpaw Fletcher’s service today. My wife and I have known Ken and Linda, two of Pawpaw’s adult children for over 20 years. You could not find two finer people, a true testament to their father. I was moved by the outpouring of the community, and like you, I was also thinking of Ruthie, after reading your outstanding book on her life and the community that loved her so. “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming” inspired me to love more deeply, give more freely, and above all, to cherish family. I too want to be the kind of man Papaw Fletcher was, Christ-like. It is a daily struggle for me to maintain the passion I felt after reading your book, and again after witnessing the moving services today. I will qoute Thomas Merton, in his prayer from “Thoughts in Solitude”: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” When I feel inadequate standing in the shadow of a man like Papaw Fletcher, I remember that prayer, and sigh with relief that I too am on journey, of learning to love. And as Ken, Papaw’s son, said at the service today, Jesus loved a party, but it is in mourning that he truly does teach us the important things in life. I learned a lot today. Rod, it was a pleasure to meet you and I hope to see you again. Peace.

#4 Comment By Lancelot Lamar On April 27, 2013 @ 12:49 am

I have known lots of people like your uncle in lots of poor churches like Trinity Baptist, where the Lord’s supper is Welch’s grape juice and saltine crackers.

They are looked down upon by everybody of intelligence and power and wealth in this world, but, for the most part, they don’t care. Their treasure is not of this world and they know it.

“He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.” Your uncle will be a prince and ruler in the realm of King Jesus, where the last are first and the first last. Thank God.

[Note from Rod: Any kingdom in which Uncle Jimmy has a hand in ruling will be a peaceable kingdom indeed. I was just e-mailing a friend that while the heart of Empire decays extravagantly with the wailing of Kardashians and the gnashing of Jay-Z, in the backwaters, the Uncle Jimmys and Ruthie Lemings are getting on with the real business of life. — RD]

#5 Comment By Church Lady On April 27, 2013 @ 2:07 am

As a young man, he looked just like Gomer Pyle. And I mean that as a complement.

#6 Comment By Anglican On April 27, 2013 @ 9:33 am

Rod, I like your comment on the bottom of Lancelot Lamar’s comment about the Uncle Jimmys and Ruthie Lemmings, getting on with the real business of life, while the empire rots away. I know lots of decent people like that myself. I think my parents are like that. Your comment is pretty much, how I feel. I can’t really change any of the big picture stuff, but I can try my best to do right by the people in my life and where I am planted. This country is beyond parody and likely beyond saving in it’s current from, but on a smaller, more local level, there is still hope.

#7 Comment By Bernie On April 27, 2013 @ 10:23 am

What a great post…and how true. As an older person, I have attended many funerals of family and friends. As Patrick Regan states: “Jesus loved a party, but it is in mourning that he truly does teach us the important things in life.”

I once attended a talk by a very well-known person – author, national speaker, frequent television guest, etc. He told of his experience of walking through a cemetery for the nuns of a certain religious order. Each tombstone had a saying etched on it, the one chosen by the nun herself. Our speaker, an intellectual in his seventies, told us, almost in tears, that while he fell far short, he would hope that his etching could read: “He was kind.”

Funerals and cemeteries remind us of what’s important.

#8 Comment By Rebecca On April 27, 2013 @ 8:29 pm

Mr Fletcher was my best friend’s Grandaddy. He was just as you described him, gracious and loving and hard working. I remember visiting him once, where he and Mrs Fletcher opened up their home to me as if I was their own family. My favorite memory is of the brown paper bags full of softball sized peaches they would bring on their summer visits to Arkansas. The peach juice would drip down your arm and drip off your elbow as you ate them! They were so good! My life was blessed in more ways than one by this sweet couple! Thank you for your kind words of this wonderful man.

#9 Comment By Pilgrim On April 28, 2013 @ 11:51 am

“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.”

And could shifting this have any impact on our failing schools?

#10 Comment By David Naas On April 28, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

The great lesson I learn from all this is, as was said, “getting on with the real business of life, while the empire rots away”.

Maybe in that simple idea is our salvation.

Maybe we have forgotten that petitions, parades, and politics are useless for the reform/renewal of society. Maybe we can better ourselves only by bettering our *selves* — taking the example of your Uncle Jimmy to heart, and simply living the life we already know we should. Maybe.

#11 Comment By Ashley Jones On April 30, 2013 @ 12:04 am

I am honored to say I am his Granddaughter. I appreciate you using your gift of writing to bless my family. The little girl in me thought he would live forever. My mind hardly knows where to stop when I think of what he and my Grandmother mean to me. Gratitude. Simplicity. Compassion. Love. Most of all Love.

#12 Comment By Jeremy and Shirly Williams On May 2, 2013 @ 7:50 pm

We neighbor Mr. Fletcher. My family would like to extend our deepest condolences on his passing. If we can be of any help to the family at any time please do not hesitate to call on us. ~The Williams Family 1516 Nat Street.

#13 Comment By Hattie & Billy Watson On May 6, 2013 @ 3:31 pm

We did not know Mr. Fletcher, but we know his son, Ken.
Ken knows what a legacy he has to live up to. Ken strives everyday to be the man his father would want him to be. What shoes he left behind to be filled!!!

#14 Pingback By Divinity On June 19, 2016 @ 2:30 am

[…] daughter, my Aunt Julia, who died of cancer at age 42, just like my sister did. My grandmother — Uncle Jimmy’s sister — was a plain country lady who had a hard life. Burying a daughter was the worst of it, no doubt, […]