By Tony Jones
In a few months, my mom will turn 70. She’s raised three boys who are now a doctor, a lawyer, and a theologian (one of these things is not like the other!). She spent a decade on the school board in our hometown, and another decade speaking bravely and publicly about her battle with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
But a decade ago, just as she and my dad were looking to cruise into retirement with their friends, her heart was captured by a young man who was sinking into darkness.
Cavonte Johnson was only in elementary school, but he’d already been through hell. He’d been found by authorities, alone, at age 2. His mom was sent to prison for assault, and she’s there still. He doesn’t remember her. He doesn’t know who his dad is.
At some point, his Memphis relatives put him on a bus to Minneapolis to stay with his aunt. At least she had a job. But she was working hard and raising a child of her own—she hadn’t asked for Cavonte to be dropped in her lap, so she left him to his own devices.
My mom knew Cavonte’s aunt and offered to help out on occasion. She’d pick him up and bring him to church and to her house for lunch. She helped him with homework. She paid for him to play in a basketball league. And slowly, the boy opened up to her. He hated staying with his aunt. He returned from school to a cold, dark apartment; and he’d hide under his covers until someone came home.
He was slipping into darkness, as do so many young men who are born into poverty and dysfunction.
At some point, his aunt’s boyfriend threatened him, and Cavonte called my parents to come get him. That was it. The threshold had been crossed. They set up a bedroom for him, transferred him to a new school, and took over guardianship of him.
Over the next four years, my mom tutored Cavonte. He took to math pretty quickly, but he’d simply never learned how to read. So they sat on the couch every night, and he painstakingly read aloud to her, starting with the most elementary books, graduating to The Great Gatsby.
Cavonte played basketball and football and ran track, and my parents went to every game and meet, sitting in the parent section, but the other parents were my age. They went on college visits, two decades after their last son went to college. Cavonte chose the University of Minnesota, where he walked on to the football team—and, more importantly, he’s an engineering major.
The eshet chayil of Proverbs 31 is a valorous woman, it seems, because she is sacrificial: the whole poem is about how she serves her family and the poor. Surely these words have been read and used oppressively, but they need not be seen in that way. There are ways to serve in which the giver does not forsake her identity. Indeed, this is the very example of Christ, reflected in another poem, who humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross—and Christ clearly did not relinquish his identity in order to display humility.
Similarly, if you met Sarah Jones, you’d know she’s no shrinking violet. She’s full of opinions and ideas. She’s usually in the middle of three books, planning a party, and thinking about when she can next get up to the family cabin.
But she didn’t become so absorbed in her relatively comfortable suburban life that she couldn’t see someone who needed her to drop everything, delay her plans, and lend a hand.
Merry Christmas, Mom. You are a Woman of Valor to me.
See a video about Sarah and Cavonte here.
This post is part of our Women of Valor series. Eshet chayil—woman of valor— has long been a blessing of praise in the Jewish community. Husbands often sing the line from Proverbs 31 to their wives at Sabbath meals. Women cheer one another on through accomplishments in homemaking, career, education, parenting, and justice by shouting a hearty “eshet chayil!” after each milestone. Great women of the faith, like Sarah and Ruth and Deborah, are identified as women of valor. One of my goals after completing my year of biblical womanhood was to “take back” Proverbs 31 as a blessing, not a to-do list, by identifying and celebrating women of valor. To help me in this, you submitted nearly 100 essays to our Women of Valor essay contest. There were so many essays that made me laugh, cry, and think I’ve decided that, in addition to the eight winners we featured in August, I will select several more to feature as guest posts throughout the fall.
We have honored a single mom, a feisty professor, a midwife, a foster parent, an abuse survivor, a brave grandmother, a master seamstress, a young Ugandan woman who reached out to a sister in need, and many more.