Larry Oney knows poor.
As the seventh of Bubba Oney’s 11 children, he grew up in Lake Providence in north Louisiana, a member of a sharecropping family that had no money but plenty of rules for survival.
At age 7, the boys in the family had to start pulling their weight in the cotton fields, which meant either picking cotton for 2 cents a pound or hoeing the Johnsongrass for $3 a day to keep it from choking off the cash crop.
Days in the field began before dawn, and the ride into hell in the back of the pickup truck carried with it two distinct sounds – the sloshing of ice cubes in the water bucket and the jangling of steel hoes.
When Oney’s mother eventually moved her children to what she hoped would be “The Promised Land” of Kenner, Oney was 10. As he grew into his teenage body, he became a budding basketball star at newly integrated East Jefferson High School, which had 350 blacks among the 3,000-member student body.
But he was an angry soul. A teacher asked in class one day why most blacks didn’t work. He was stopped walking through the Metairie neighborhood to the bus stop and forced to place his hands on the hood of the patrol car and spread his legs. White kids driving by threw bottles at him as he waited at the bus stop.
The bitterness born of racism blossomed into a desire to join the Black Panthers. He “hated” white people. He would have joined, but he didn’t have the money to catch the bus into New Orleans for the Black Panthers recruiting rally, a road block Oney looks on now as a divine grace.
Other things happened to change his heart. One Thanksgiving, a white woman knocked on the family home with two bags. They contained bread, stuffing, fresh duck and smoked oysters in a can.
A white person cared.
Oney halfheartedly went on retreat a few years later and was told by another woman he did not know: “God loves you.”
He began taking instructions in the Catholic faith and was baptized at Holy Rosary Church on Bayou Lafourche in Larose, and when he was baptized, his mother, a Baptist, asked if he could take the big plunge in a pool of water rather than just being sprinkled.
Fast forward many years, and Oney began to crush it in the business world. He became chairman of HGI Global, a risk management and project management firm with offices across the country.
In his heart, he felt a stirring of a vocation to the permanent diaconate, and in 2008, he was ordained by Archbishop Alfred Hughes at St. Louis Cathedral.
Now, the son of north Louisiana, the man who was both a target of and a seedbed for racism, is on fire to tell the story of a God who offers hope and purpose to anyone who will listen.
As part of a Catholic evangelizing team he established called Hope and Purpose Ministries, Deacon Oney, who serves at Divine Mercy Parish in Kenner, has traveled across the world telling a story of divine, transformative love.
When he was in Tanzania last month, he brought with him 50 pounds of rosaries collected by Divine Mercy parishioners to give to the African Catholics.
When he handed out the rosaries, the people received them as pearls of great price.
“Our people here don’t realize the impact they had on the lives of the people there,” Deacon Oney said. “Everybody’s heard of New Orleans, even in Africa, trust me. They asked me, ‘So, your church, your archdiocese, has sent these?’ I said, ‘Yeah!’”
The material poverty of the Tanzanians juxtaposed with their spiritual wealth brought Deacon Oney back to his own roots. One man – “without a penny” – who came to the retreat praying for a job, came back to report a few days later that he not only had been hired but his new boss also had given him an advance for the work he was to do.
“That’s kind of like a miracle,” Deacon Oney said.
Having grown up hoeing the cotton fields in Lake Providence, Deacon Oney understands why God has planted him in Tanzania and Uganda and Brazil – in addition to the Promised Land of Kenner.
“I can’t say every day growing up I was concerned about where I was going to get my next meal,” Deacon Oney said. “I mean, we were poor, but this is another level of poverty. It kind of confirms for me that God has connected me with the materially poor. These people are materially poor, but they offer extravagant praise in the midst of their abject poverty.”
When Deacon Oney gave a mission in Brazil, an archbishop told him the poverty was so great, parents were selling their children for sexual favors – “for a plate of food.”
“You go to some parts of Africa, and the slave trade is still real,” Deacon Oney said.
When he returns to Uganda next year to offer a retreat for 300 priests, Deacon Oney said one of his desires is to visit the thousands of South Sudanese women and children refugees who are in refugee camps along the Ugandan border.
“It’s mostly women and children because most of the men have been killed,” he said. “We can tell them Jesus loves them. Most are Catholic.”
Through his travels, Deacon Oney has met several young priests from Africa and invited them to join him on his evangelization team. He also has hosted priests at his home while they are in the U.S. making mission appeals.
“One young priest asked me, ‘Could you help me get $40 to buy a used bicycle so I can do ministry?’” Deacon Oney said. “We’re privileged to do that. The need is so great. My wife Andi has seen priests with their tattered vestments, so we’re going to provide them with some inexpensive vestments. It’s a sad thing to see a priest in tattered vestments.”
On one of his preaching stops in Uganda, Deacon Oney preached to 80,000 people in a field. One morning he was part of a eucharistic procession. Women began taking off the wraps they put on their shoulders and dropping them on the ground, like rose petals for Jesus.
At one mission, he was offered a stipend – a cow.
“We know you can’t take the cow, but we have turned the cow into cash,” he was told. Deacon Oney used the cash cow – about $280 – to fund a Catholic radio program in the local school.
In America, Deacon Oney’s preaching often attaches itself to spiritual poverty. When he spoke recently at a university’s Catholic center, the priest there told him six students had committed suicide over the past year.
“These young people are in a battle,” he said.
The next step in his evangelizing mission is to use technology to spread the teachings of the church. He is attacking that mission with hope and purpose.
“It’s a beautiful thing, that’s all I can tell you,” Deacon Oney said.
For more information, go to hopeandpurpose.org.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.