A couple of weeks ago, my family had the painful task of saying goodbye for now to my Uncle Gene. He was a father of eight and a husband of more than fifty years to his childhood sweetheart and my dad’s only sibling. He was a teacher, a preacher, a principal of a Christian school, a Sunday school teacher, head of a board of deacons and a friend to many, attested to by the line of people through the sanctuary and out the door waiting to pay their respects. More than any of that, he was a child of God. During his eulogy the pastor said repeatedly that Uncle Gene would’ve wanted less talk about him and more about Jesus.
Our family did not go to church when I was growing up. My uncle’s family lived at church. When I was five years old and started asking questions, as all small children do, it was my uncle who knelt with me beside my grandfather’s bed and prayed with me a prayer that was the seed of the faith that I have today. The gratitude I have for his example is something I can hardly express, although the life my uncle lived was one I did not understand as a child. The father of so many children, he worked at a local grocery store and lived on a modest income. He did not wear fancy clothes. He did not drive fancy cars. He always had a pocket lined with pens and something to write on, his old-school Blackberry of sorts. (I smiled when I saw them still in his pocket as he was being laid to rest.) His haircut was a classic barber cut from the 50s and he wore it throughout his life. My cousin recounts with laughter how her father took their family off on a mission excursion with New Tribes in the mid-80s where she spent her 16th birthday digging a latrine.
While growing up, my strained relationship with my dad took a toll on our family for many years. Uncle Gene never missed a chance to tell me that my dad loved me. He was the one person in my dad’s family who always asked me how my mom was after my parents divorced – without fail.
When I started homeschooling my children, my family was very critical of my decision. In those early days, this was so discouraging. The only person that understood the why without ever asking was Uncle Gene. He didn’t treat me like I was weird, radical, or as if I had just joined some crazy cult. He encouraged me. When I would see him throughout the years it was usually in the midst of a massive family gathering, providing little opportunity to have a complete conversation with any one person. But my uncle, with whom I shared a love of spiritual books, would always ask me what I’d been reading and sometimes we’d share a thing or two that God had impressed on us. There was never enough time.
If I could see my Uncle Gene today, I’d tell him how much all those things meant to me through the years. Through those small exchanges, I knew that being different was okay. Watching how he lived his life, I knew it was right to follow God, forsaking all others in homeschooling and in all areas of life and faith. He showed me, by example, how to live counter-culture. If I could talk to him today, I would thank him for being an encourager through the years and in all the right ways.
Photo Credit: First photo taken by Marta Pawlik, graphic design by Charity Klicka; second photo taken by Jordan McQueen, text design by Charity Klicka.