Willie's Living Faith
Once upon a time I had the great privilege to know a very poor and simple woman who stood closer to God than anyone I’ve ever met. She had grown up totally without the things we so take for granted now: everything from indoor toilets to formal education. Her parents had picked cotton, and she remembered well picking cotton as a child with them. She used to tell me her stories as we picked strawberries at a farm in Colt, Arkansas, for two weeks every May. She looked forward to those days; she saw old friends, sang songs, and totally immersed herself in the job at hand.
Her name was Willie. She took over raising me after my mother died, when I was eleven. My mother, who knew she was dying, made Willie promise to stay with me until I graduated from high school. This was not always an easy task, since she and my father often butted heads on many issues. But when I awoke on the first day of school in the sixth grade to the news that my mother, as they say in the South, had “passed away,” it was Willie’s voice I heard, and Willie’s eyes that I looked into for comfort and reassurance. From that day on, she called me Sister, and I called her Mama. She kept her promise: she stayed with me, and with us, for many years after that day, until age and dementia forced her into a nursing home, where she subsequently died. But I get ahead of myself. For it was in our life together after my mother died that I came to know how extraordinary Willie was.
Was it Providence that brought Willie to my family when I was five, the same year that my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer? We had had other help before, as was the custom in the South, but no one like her. Willie was different from the beginning. She had a very strong sense of self, and a very strong sense of right and wrong, and an unbelievably strong faith. From the beginning, she both commanded and demanded my respect, not through her words, but through her actions, through who she was. She had left a previous job on the day the child had spit on her, and she told me this. I knew even then that Willie was a person who knew who she was, and even though she had no means of supporting herself, being respected was more important to her than eating. So, there had been no dilemma in her mind about what to do; she walked away from that job and came to work for us.
I don’t think that she would be considered extraordinary now, in the age of academic giftedness, where a person’s worth is judged solely in terms of numbers: IQs, SATs, GPAs. You see, Willie could barely even read, though she made a great show each day of reading the grocery ads in the paper. She also loved to play cards. ”Go Fish” was our personal favorite. She even let me teach her a bit of piano. But gifted she was not!
In addition, Willie didn’t travel, and she was neither wealthy nor beautiful. When I say that she had nothing, I mean nothing – no car, no garden, no gourmet kitchen, no vacations, no fancy clothes, no fame, no power. She neither had nor wanted to have the myriad of finite things that so many of us feel we couldn’t live without.
What, then, made Willie the best person I’ve ever met?
She had everything that mattered.
First and foremost, Willie was a Christian. She had an unbelievable faith in Jesus. To her, Jesus was sincerely, really, one hundred percent present in every day, at every moment, in her life.
I saw examples of this faith all the time. I never knew how remarkable it was, though, until I realized that very few people have true faith.
For example, I fled to her house one night after my father and I had a fight. Her house was small and dilapidated, a shack in every sense of the word. I parked and went in, and there Willie sat, on her sofa. No TV, no radio, and only one book in her room; not surprisingly, the Bible. I asked her, “What are you doing, Mama? “ And she replied, smiling, “I am just sitting here, talking to Jesus.” And I knew, even at sixteen, that I was in the presence of some new reality: a sincere Christian who didn’t recite codes and couldn’t tithe. She was never showy about it. It simply was who she was; it made her who she was. Her serenity calmed me down. “Honey, your dad might be difficult, but there ain’t no problem Jesus can’t handle. You’ll get through this.” Fortunately for me, there was no problem so great that being enveloped in her arms and told that I was the greatest thing on earth couldn’t fix. Renewed by her love, I returned home and got through it, as she had promised I would. There are so many times, now, that I long for those hugs.
Her "faith in things unseen" meant that material things were unimportant to her, and she was never jealous of the things that I got. It was not unusual in those days to go shopping and bring things home on approval. One day, I was in my bedroom trying on several pretty spring dresses. I remember asking her, “Mama, which one should I keep?” And with a big smile, she replied, “Sister, keep all of them!”
Willie had something money couldn’t buy: the absolute joy of living in God’s presence. She found joy in the simplest things and through her simple life. She showed her love for God in everything that she did. As she ironed, cleaned and hung out laundry, you could always hear her singing hymns in her sweet high soprano.
Most people find it hard to understand this one truth: things distract us from the knowledge of God. God can only be found when all else is stripped away. Great yogis know this, and seek to find it through meditation. But Willie didn’t need to meditate; she didn’t feel the need to get away from her distractions, because nothing could distract her.
She was absolutely and undoubtedly my very best friend. But she was also my inspiration, and the single biggest influence in my life.
I have often asked myself why this was so, and only recently did the answer come to me. It took me over thirty years to put my finger on why she had influenced me so much. It happened in the course of teaching a philosophy seminar when it dawned on me that Willie lived every lesson that I was teaching.
Most strikingly, she was a character from Soren Kierkegaard’s book, Fear and Trembling. She would have laughed if I told her of my admiration for Kierkegaard, thinking his name was silly: but she was the incarnation of his knight of faith, the person who is willing to give up all earthly desire to attain heavenly reward, but who, at the same time, loves and appreciates every moment of life. Willie made very little money. I don’t know even know how she survived on what she made, but she did. For her, even paying bills was joyful. When I learned to drive, I took her around town every Friday so that she could pay her utility bills. She would go directly to the building, and always paid cash. By the time she was done, she would have, in a good week, about five dollars left, and she would laugh and say, “Thank you, Jesus! I have made it through another week!” Those words have stayed with me for forty years; I find myself saying them every Friday.
Many philosophies teach us to embrace death as a part of life. Willie realized and accepted, like few people I have ever known, that death completes life, and is not something to fear. I remember that January day in 1980 when I packed my small red Datsun for the long drive east for graduate school. She stood on the driveway, wiping at her tears with her apron. I reassured her by saying I’d be back soon, by mid spring, which was only four months away. “I may be gone by then,” she said with a smile. “Gone where, Mama? Are you planning a trip?” “No, Sister, I may be gone to my glory," she laughed. I looked at her and said, “Pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you?” and she replied with the truest words I’d ever heard, “Well, honey, if I don’t get in to glory, no one will!” Her logic was irrefutable. What more could God want in his loyal servants, than someone like Willie?
It was one of the only times any trace of pride came through, though now I see it was not so much hubris, but certainty. Self certainty is one of the gifts God gives us, if we let Him. It is the self’s realization that it belongs to, is indebted to, and is cared for, by God.
I could go on forever, but I will end with one last observation. My early relationship with Willie explains my absolute love for Paul Tillich’s theology, particularly his method of correlation, which resonated in me from the moment I read about it as an undergraduate. Simply stated, the method means that humans are made in such a way that we are always asking the most basic question of life: the question about why we are here. Tillich believed that the answer was found in religion. Willie would have totally agreed with Tillich, but there was more to it than that, for me.
In the summer of 1967, as a child, I was experiencing the method of correlation. I was living the question, and Willie, quite simply, was my answer.
As I said before, my mother died when I was eleven; she had been sick since I was five years old, and on some level, I knew it was a bad illness. No one needed to tell me. The question that my very being was absorbing through all those years of watching my mother’s decline were the ones Tillich spoke of: Why are we here? What is the meaning of it all? Why is this happening? When my mother died on that fateful day in late summer, Willie, through her tears, told me, “Miss Peggy was too good for this earth, and God took her because he needed her more than we do. You must trust God.” I believed her, and still believe her, with all my heart. This was such a fundamental example of the correlation method at work. Question and answer, side by side, being lived.
Willie would be so embarrassed to know that I was writing about her in this way, because, to her, having faith was so natural, and led one to a life of humility, not pride. Willie didn’t think of herself as special or unique in any way. But Kierkegaard would have disagreed with her assessment. He must have known someone like Willie when he wrote, in Fear and Trembling, that “Faith is the highest passion in a man; there are perhaps many in every generation who do not even reach it, but no one gets further.” She was one of the few in her generation (or mine) who had reached faith, and she proved to me, every day, that no one gets further than that.
Annette Evans graduated from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. She completed her graduate work in philosophy and religious studies, and teaches religious studies at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Virginia. She lives with her family and numerous dogs, cats and horses, on a small farm in central Virginia.