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In his new book, Amazed by God’s Grace, Deacon Larry Oney shares how God’s grace took him by surprise and gradually brought him into full-time ministry in the Catholic Church. We recently spoke with Deacon Larry about his journey of faith.
You grew up in the South as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was marching. What was your upbringing like?
I was one of eleven children. We grew up sharecropping for a white landowner in rural north Louisiana. We lived in a two-bedroom shack on the plantation, without indoor plumbing. When I was seven years old, I joined everybody else chopping and picking sharp cotton boughs for two cents a pound. The work was scratchy and dangerous, and I didn’t like it.
When I was ten years old, we left my dad behind, and my mother brought us to the “Promised Land” of Kenner, Louisiana, outside New Orleans. On our drive through Mississippi, the adults ordered us to “keep our heads low.” The Ku Klux Klan didn’t like more than two black men traveling in a truck together, and we were afraid of what would happen if someone stopped our vehicle. At that time, schools were just starting to be integrated, and it was a very difficult time to be a young black man. To say that I was angry at white people is an understatement!
What started your healing process and your search for God?
My encounter with God started when a white woman came to our black neighborhood in Kenner on Thanksgiving to give us groceries. She didn’t make a big deal of it. She just did her act of kindness and moved on. We were getting ready to eat turnip greens and corn bread like usual when she arrived at the front door. White people didn’t come to our neighborhood unless it was the police or the fire department. That act of charity started to soften my heart.
It’s one of the moments of God’s grace that you share in your new book, Amazed by God’s Grace. How did you end up in the Catholic Church?
In my twenties, after I got married, I started to read the Bible from front to back. After several years of asking hard questions and receiving insightful answers from a very patient black Catholic deacon, I was baptized into the Catholic Church. On that day, all of the hatred I had felt when I saw the faces of white people—it was gone. In the Church, I had a whole new community of brothers and sisters, black as well as white. An older Catholic at my workplace sent me a little note that said, “Welcome to the family,” and that’s what it felt like.
You also talk about healing from divorce and other relationship tensions in the book. Was that hard to talk about?
It was difficult, but I tried to focus on how God’s grace was able to operate in the midst of these tensions. That’s how the book is organized, actually. After each story, we spend a moment reflecting on things like listening, finding peace and rest in stressful situations, and building a culture of encouragement.
So Amazed by God’s Grace isn’t only about you—it’s about how every one of us can find healing and hope.
That’s right. I hope it offers a path to God speaking to someone and saying, “I can lift you out of your pain,” whether it comes from divorce or alcoholism, racism or political division. Healing is one of the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to the Church. It’s for all of us. I love to pray for healing miracles. Even when we don’t see anything on the outside, inner healing is often occurring.
One moving story tells of your reconciliation with your father. What is the backstory to that?
I had no relationship with my dad for many years after we left north Louisiana. We were always hungry and poor as I was growing up, and it hurt that my dad hadn’t helped us out more. But receiving Baptism brought about a real metanoia in me—a total change of heart. Jesus died for my sins, so I wanted to forgive those who had hurt me. It was a powerful moment for me as a new Christian to try to reconcile with my dad.
How did you go about approaching him?
I decided to drive back to the plantation where he still lived. Black children in that part of the country are not heard; they are only seen—and seen briefly. So going to see my dad caused me some fear and trepidation. I had never before asked him, “Can I talk to you?”
I got there and we started catching up a little bit. After a while I asked him, “Why didn’t you help us?” He was ready with an answer. For fifteen years, he had been sending our mother small amounts of money to support us. He even showed me the piles of money order slips he had saved. I forgave him that day, and we started a new relationship. Our reconciliation broke the ice for the rest of my family to view him with more kindness as well. So it had a trickle-down effect. That’s how the Holy Spirit works.
Who is Deacon Larry Oney?
Larry Oney is a permanent deacon for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. He is the founder and president of Hope and Purpose Ministries, which participates in the New Evangelization through preaching, teaching, retreats, and parish missions in the US and abroad. He is married to Andi, a fellow evangelist, and has five children.
Amazed by God’s Grace: Overcoming Racial Divides by the Power of the Holy Spirit by Deacon Larry Oney is available at bookstore.wau.org and amazon.com