Category Archives: Race
Several years ago, Dr. Penny Marler approached me about participating in a program where pastors might become
friends across differences—race, age, denomination—and learn from each other. Rev. Arthur Price and I decided to make that journey together. He is the pastor of historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where, 50 years ago this fall, people driven by hate and fear set off a bomb that killed four little girls who had just prayed together. The episode set off a national revulsion to the radical racists and helped put America in a new direction.
Over the course of that few years, we became friends, Arthur much younger, a different personality, a native of the North, me a son of the South. It was one of the richest experiences of my life, and it is documented on the website of the Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence. (For more information about the project Rev. Price and I did together, click HERE)
One of the side blessings of that friendship was connecting our churches. We visited each others’ deacons meetings, had our congregations together for fellowship, and continued our friendship by having breakfast together regularly over the years. Last year, we began to talk together about doing something positive that would mark this anniversary by affirming that we are in a new day and that the faith community is part of that. We were joined by another friend, Rev. Keith Thompson of First United Methodist Church downtown.
After the massacre at Newtown in December, our sense of commitment was heightened. Whatever strikes at our Read the rest of this entry
Indians Sue for Possession of the U.S.:
Ask for Return of Lands and Deportation of
(Imaginary Press Release) The immigration crisis in the United States took an unexpected turn today when Native Americans launched a lawsuit to deport all European descendants from the US back to their homelands. Following the recent Supreme Court decision on immigration, leaders representing all the major tribes gathered together at Little Big Horn to announce an impending lawsuit. They are seeking a lawsuit to remove all European Americans whose ancestors emigrated to this country illegally during the past 300 years, claiming that they had illegally squatted on tribal land, brought a plague of drug and alcohol abuse, took jobs that unemployed Native Americans could do, like being CEOs, equipment managers for basketball teams, and investment bankers, and ruined their livelihoods by killing off all the buffalo.
They are asking the court to uphold their legal request that requires all Europeans to carry identification cards and wear moccasins except in extremely cold weather. They also have suggested that Reservation police be able to check identity and arrest Senior Adult Caucasians at Casinos if they have probable cause to think they are here illegally. The Europeans must return all stolen lands and go live on a reservation while their cases are being deliberated. If deported, they will go to the end of the line, which is said to be in Iceland and that they may come back in ten years.
Descendants of Cochise, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull and Geronimo have hired the Manhattan firm of Dewey, Cheatum and Howe, famous legal counsel for NPR’s “Car Talk,” to lead the dream team. They will be joined by lead attorney and member of the House of Representatives Chief Enormous Bull as they argue their motion.
The motion blames Squanto for helping the Pilgrims, who kidnapped him and took him to England while his tribe was wiped out by Pilgrim diseases. Squanto, they contend, did not have authorization to permit them to land in the first place. The Indians had planned to build an enormous wall around Plymouth Rock but construction had not begun when the immigrants arrived and began squatting on the land.
In a related move, the Geico Cavemen said they would file an injunction blocking the Native American motion as their ancestors likely preceded them and should also be removed. While their numbers are small, they have considerable insurance assets to leverage for a long legal fight.
Neither group has said specifically if the motions would apply to all Caucasian Americans, or would only affect those whose ancestors actually took Indian lands. Both groups said they would be willing to negotiate a settlement, and neither had interest in taking Manhattan back, and said that Arizona could remain as a reservation for whites until arrangements to move in with relatives could be made.
The American Bar Association said it looks forward to the years of billable hours that this action implies. Leaders in China said whoever wound up with ownership of the country would be responsible for its current and future debts. Europeans announced a counter-suit denying the return of the descendants until they could prove that they would be good citizens and not a threat to security. Mexican drug cartels protested the removal of their largest customers citing exorbitant shipping and transportation costs. Meanwhile, Alabama and a dozen other states said they would begin deportations immediately, whether there was a country to take them or not. In the absence of a place to go, white people will be given large flat barges stocked with bottled water, Spam and saltine crackers, cable television and country music CDs while they wait until a country will receive them. The suit has specified that those being placed on the reservation will travel by Greyhound bus along the Trail of Tears.
A spokesman for the Euro-Americans protested the move, citing the damage it would cause to families and especially children, and members of Congress met through the night and said because of the urgency of the matter that Immigration reform could be ready as early as Tuesday. The President said he would rush back from vacation to sign the bill, which would resolve the situation. “This affects millions of voters…er, people. We have to fix this.” Observers say it may be the fastest action of this magnitude that the Congress has ever achieved other than declarations of war, voting on raises for Congress, and motions of appreciation for professional athletes.
We prefer a safe mediocrity to a persuasive truth telling.
Baptist news wires recently carried the story about a successful protest by a Baptist preacher to remove a movie from Lifeway stores. The movie is “The Blind Side,” starring Sandra Bullock. It was based on the book by the same name by Michael Lewis, who also wrote, Liar’s Poker and Moneyball.
I happened to meet Michael Lewis years ago when he was writing the book, and he told me he was working on a “really interesting story.” It was about a young man from the meanest streets of Memphis who was adopted by a family and placed in a white private Christian school. The story is well known by now—Michael Oher went on to be a football star at the University of Mississippi and now plays for the Baltimore Ravens.
I bought and read the book when it came out, and went to see the film. Football movies are pretty well required viewing in Alabama. So I was more than amused with all the other moral problems at the moment—debt, wars, racism, the disintegration of families, and do I need to go on?—that a PG-13 movie could cause such an uproar. According to the report,
LifeWay Christian Stores will no longer sell videos of “The Blind Side” after a Florida pastor proposed a resolution for next week’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting protesting the sale of a PG-13 movie that contains profanity and a racial slur…[the stores decided to] pull the movie, an inspirational film starring Sandra Bullock that tells the true story of a white Christian family that adopted a homeless black teenager who went on to play in the NFL, to avoid controversy at the June 19-20 SBC annual meeting in New Orleans. [The pastor who brought the resolution] said there is much about the film to be commended, but there is no place in a Christian bookstore for a movie that includes explicit language that includes taking God’s name in vain.
I get it. It’s Baptist to speak your mind. I know language has become debased and misused. And, it’s the right of any store and its owners to sell or not sell what it wishes. Still, it stirred a few thoughts about the mostly non-existent tie between Christians, especially evangelical ones, and the world of the arts. And why fewer people want to be Baptists.
Walter Brueggemann once said that in the book of Leviticus, which for some odd reason has become a moral center for a lot of people today, there is an emphasis on holiness as “purity.” There are other forms of holiness in scripture—moral and ethical righteousness, for one, that sometimes comes into conflict with the notion of purity. Jesus encountered this among the Pharisees, who could not do the deeper right things for fear of disturbing their own ethic of remaining personally removed from what might compromise, taint and violate their ethic of purification holiness.
I have thought a lot about Brueggemann’s distinction since I first read it. Somehow, a fully biblical notion requires more than avoiding “impurities.” Yet purity is important. An obsession seems to lead always to a rather puny moral energy that dispirits more than it inspires. Inevitably, it ends up with an account of morality that is always boycotting, removing itself from sinners and sin, and circling the wagons.
Here in Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of our great treasures. You can still go to Monroeville, Alabama and see a live re-enactment of the story every year by the local citizenry. You start out in the yard, then move inside the courthouse, and it is eerily reminiscent of the movie because Hollywood built a replica of it for the film. When I went with friends a few years back, I felt a flash of shame and pain when the n-word was uttered while African American locals up in the balcony were in our presence. I was embarrassed. So we’ve made some progress, I guess. As a child in North Carolina the word was uttered around me thoughtlessly, as a part of an unquestioned culture of resentment and vulnerable entitlement. Read the rest of this entry
When it comes to the painful problem of race, it’s never about one thing…it’s about everything.
By Gary Furr
The explosion that has occurred in recent days over the shooting of a Florida teenager has reignited one of our oldest and most enduring debates. The case of Trayvon Martin has caused outbursts between journalists, demonstrations and a weary “Will we ever be able to move past this?” cloud to hover again over us. The gulf between the races is painfully obvious. It sounds as though we are talking about two different cases. And we are.
In the late 1980s, I listened as an African American pastor friend in South Georgia, a disabled veteran, told me about watching men with pickhandles and baseball bats beat his father nearly to death because his father had disagreed with his boss at work. As a ten year old boy, he watched through the blinds in terror. He described a journey of forgiveness and grief over that incident that lasted far into adulthood as he tried to make peace with incomprehensible violence.
In July of 2010, I was a part of a group of pastors from Alabama who traveled together to Israel for a pilgrimage as part of a very generous grant from a foundation aimed at giving us rest, study and spiritual renewal. Amazingly, since our congregations did not have to pay for it, they all voted to let us go.
It exceeded our expectations, as we all enjoyed a wonderful experience of community and prayer in the land where the founder of our faith walked the earth. It is also a place of contradictions, of course, and we saw those, too. We saw the ugly “barriers” that cordoned off the Palestinian people in their towns, born of genuine anxiety for security among the Israelis and yet which only deepens the frustrations between the two groups. Security is always a concern where mistrust abounds.
If you ever go to the “Holy Land,” as we Christians usually call it, the entry to the airport begins with a clump of scowering, eagle-eyed security people clustered around a narrow doorway where everyone enters, looking you up and down with folded arms and either expressionless or glaring. We walked past–I had been before and advised everyone, “Don’t joke, don’t laugh, just walk through.”
At one point, I heard something, and noticed that our three African-American pastors had all been detained and whisked to the side. I started to go back, thought better about, and simply waited until the interrogation was over. In a little while, they were released and we were on our way. At first we kidded and joked, but then we fell silent.
It was obvious to me that they were pained about this. They are three highly educated, holy, respected men, two veterans and one a younger pastor. Their integrity is as high as I know. I would trust my life to them. But in a world of fear and insecurity, all that goes out the window.
Later, we talked about it, and they told us that this was and always had been a part of life. They were pulled out for no other reason than their skin color. They told us stories of being pulled over because of the car they were driving or walking down a street. As we began to comprehend some of what they had been through, our mood about the incident, short as it had lasted, changed to somber and sad reflection. A world in radical distrust is a painful thing indeed.
Having once lived in a small community that exploded in a racial crisis during the 1980s, I once said in a meeting that when it comes to racial divides that “truth can become a casualty.” It got a negative reaction and I realize why it was wrong. It’s not truth that becomes the casualty, it’s the argument about the facts. It is akin to a debate between a married couple about when the last time he kissed his wife—it is beside the point.
The bare facts of a particular event can miss the point when it is connected to a cosmic or cultural reality. There is always more “here” and so we end up arguing, in a sense, about a particular case AND a long painful history AND the emotional, experiential and perceptive divide between us. If we do not understand this, the temptation is then either to say, “Courts, justice and processes should be thrown out” or to say, “This is all emotion, irrationality, fear and overreaction.”
In times like this one, perceptions, experiences, truths, that need, more than anything, to be shared, heard and understood often explode into the moment. Most of the time, these complexities are ignored, suppressed or unnoticed. The outcry calls attention, but there is hard work to be done in every place when the protests end and the media moves on to the next thing.
Understanding is hard, hard work. So is justice. Facts are the limiting factor of an investigation, but our disconnections from one another are something bigger that deserves some work at the level of our citizenship and “neighbor love.” If we have solved many of the legal issues of race, we have not overcome the pain of our disconnections and distrust of one another. We are in the realm of attitude, perceptions, and understanding.
In the community where I was, we had a wonderful group of leaders, black and white, who had met and worked together to deepen understanding for a long time before the crisis happened. Without it, no way to work through it would have existed. That these channels do not often exist in many communities where people of good will intentionally step out of their usual places to offer themselves as listeners is part of the disconnect. Good relationships don’t happen without an effort on both ends.
The particular case of Trayvon Martin’s death is one thing legally, and another in this larger sense. When it comes to racial matters, it’s never about one thing—it’s about all the things. For Christians who have been handed the ministry of reconciliation, this is a fine time to listen, not react. The calling to Christians in such a moment is to patience, to not reacting, to find a place where something good could be done, to keep our tempers, and to work for understanding and patient agape love. Listening never costs anything more than a little time, but it can only be given by the surrender of one’s attention and care. It is fitting in Holy Week to remember Paul’s breathtaking summary that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Holy week is a memory that it is in the most unpromising times that the world can change for the better.
“Just a Little Talk With Jesus” is a famous old gospel song. Last night, our band, Shades Mountain Air, had a grand time at the American Gospel Quartet Convention in Birmingham and sang this crowd favorite. I knew that it was a song that black and white audiences in the South had shared since it was written. It’s been covered by just about everybody—Bill Gaither, Elvis Presley, the Stanley Brothers, and innumerable mass choirs, quartets and Sunday night gatherings around the piano in little country churches. (click this link to listen to the song by Shades Mountain Air)
It’s so heartfelt, so soulful—are you in trouble? Look in and up—just a little talk to Jesus will make it right. This song first found me in my seminary church, where I was minister of music and youth (a lofty, long title for a part-time staff member in a blue-collar white church). My church was southern, small-town North Carolina Southern Baptist folk, barely scratching to stay above the black folk in the town—marginal at best. Ever Sunday night we gathered around the piano and pulled out our “Number 8s” our name for the red songbooks we loved full of familiar gospel music. Anyone who wanted to be in the “kwarr” (choir) would gather with us, and people would call out a favorite. “My God is Real,” was the one Mr. Jernigan always requested. “They Tore the Old Country Church Down,” “Whisper a Prayer,” “Troublesome Times Are Here,” Mansion Over the Hilltop,” “If That Isn’t Love,” “Hide Me, Rock of Ages,” and, of course, “Just a Little Talk with Jesus,” because the bass singers got to show out.
I’ll never forget the day that a black family showed up at our church door and one of the men sent his little boy back to tell them they couldn’t come here. I tried to get the church to put up a basketball goal in our parking lot for the little black children who were always playing when we drove up for Sunday night church. But it was 1978, and our world was cracking but the walls hadn’t come down. I lost my first church vote of my career as one family who barely came to church brought their entire extended clan to vote my proposal down. It was a hard lesson for a 24 year old future preacher.
It was our little church, where we came for comfort. We didn’t want change, just the comfort of “a little talk with our
Jesus.” Lawd, we loved that song. What a trip to find out that this white gospel favorite was written by an African American composer named Cleavant Derricks.
The website “Southern Edition” has a fine biography about Rev. Cleavant Derricks. He was a wonderful musician who was born in Chattanooga in 1910 and had a stellar career as a minister, musician and pastor. A gentle, kind man, his songs were sung by tens of thousands. The website says that
The same songs that ministered to impoverished blacks enduring discrimination in the Jim Crow South spoke to the hearts of disadvantaged whites whose lot seemed similarly dismal due to hardships spurned on by the Great Depression and the World War II years. Like Dorsey, Tindley and Morris, Derricks would write songs that addressed daily hardships, praised a loving, sustaining God and spoke of the heavenly reward believers would gain following their labour on earth. Butler adds, “And, too, his songs were sung in the Pentecostal churches back in those days. Those people were considered the poor class—you know, the common man. They were struggling, and so his songs were accepted very rapidly because they did have that hope.”
Butler points out that “most people didn’t know [Derricks] was a black man when his songs first started being published by Stamps-Baxter.” James R. Goff Jr. concurs in his book, Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel, stating, “With an unmistakable influence from the shape-note convention arrangements and a style that often featured the bass part on the chorus, Derricks’s songs found their way into Southern shape-note hymnbooks, though few in the South would probably have guessed the author’s racial origins.”
The colossal stupidity and sinful ignorance that was racism kept us apart, but music and common suffering ignored what our systems and conscious minds erected to supposedly “protect our way of life.” We always were one and the same. Thank God we at least sang his songs. So today’s song, in honor of Rev. Derrick, is “Just a Little Talk With Jesus.” Thank God Almighty, we are further down the road to being “free at last.” Free to love one another and sing the songs of Zion.
One year, I attended the Unity Breakfast on Martin Luther King day here in Birmingham and heard Diane McWhorter, whose rather large and publicly acclaimed book Carry Me Home recounts again the impact of those momentous days in 1963 on the world. Whenever someone “remembers” how something was, it invites us to remember it from where we were at the time.
I remember 1963, but it was not from the vantage point of an adult in the middle of Big Issues. I was eight years old, in the third grade in Clarksville, Tennessee, and not mindful of much.
I remember going on a hot Sunday afternoon with my father to the home of an employee. She happened to be African American. Her family member had been killed in a train accident, and my father believed that the proper and respectful thing to do was to go by to see the family.
I remember waiting in the car while he went in, a little boy watching out the window to see people who also lived in Clarksville, Tennessee, but a very different Clarksville than the one in which I lived. I had never noticed that their children didn’t go to school where I did, or that we never ate in the same restaurants, or that we barely came across one another. This separation made my trip all the more startling. It was as though I had stumbled onto a hidden cave where an entire civilization hitherto unknown to me had taken residence.
I watched people come and go, just like in my community, bringing food, dabbing their eyes, dressed in their finest. Men tugging at their collars in the hot summer air opened the door for their wives in hats to go in with the bowl or dish. It was impressive, this little world to which I did not belong. People laughing, people smiling, people crying, just like us. But not with us.
I took in the strangeness, but something stirred even deeper in me. I saw my father speaking to them, as he did to everyone, with respect and courtesy and manners. I hear people telling tales from the sixties about marching and protesting. I have no tales like those. I do remember my father treating everyone the same, kindly, decently. His employees seemed to think they all counted the same with him. He never lost his temper that I knew of, or swore or cursed at people. Just treated them alike.
My examples were different from those dramatic and provocative ones. My family mostly watched the struggle on nightly television with the rest of the world. We worried, shook our heads, weren’t too sure how it would go. We were not allowed, though, to use epithets and inflammatory words about other races.
It takes struggle and often conflict for change to begin. But there is also the task of taking change in and absorbing it, making it livable and practical and something that can happen every day without incident. It is one thing to change laws. It is another to elicit the consent of people to those laws. And quite another to live out their spirit every day.
The whole world was changing before my eyes, in ways I did not understand and would not understand, but the example of my father’s kindness did sink deep in me. And I wonder about the eight year old boys and girls among us. What are they seeing? How are we doing? Is there something impressive enough in the way we are living life to sink deep in their souls and stay with them until they are forty-seven?
In something as simple and apparently random as going by someone’s house to pay respects, in doing what is decent and right and good, you may be causing a quiet revolution in someone who is watching not only what you do, but how you do it. Someone is watching, always. So write the script you want remembered. It will live on after you for a long time, for good or for evil. I was one of those little white children that Martin Luther King dreamed about.
I had an ancestor, all the way back seven generations, who owned slaves, I found out this year. I wish that weren’t true. I wanted to be one of the poor whites who had nothing, too. But a great-great-great or two back, one of them owned a few slaves. I don’t know what happened to the money, the land or the slaves, but I don’t like it.
But maybe it was like Dr. King said:
“I have a dream that one day the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” Maybe we can make laws that are just instead of made by men who are just afraid of people who are different and play on the rest of us who are. I hope that dream comes true.
So I am going to do every little thing I can to not be afraid, to make friends, to pay my respects, and teach my children and grandchildren that there’s room for everyone at God’s table. Everyone.
For this day, I commemorate the King holiday with a song I did on my first CD, “Lorraine.” It was inspired by my first visit to the Civil Rights Institute in Memphis, which ends at the balcony where Dr. King was murdered by fear and hate. Let it be my prayer today for a better world. Listen to the song here
An unfinished cup of coffee
By an unmade bed
Near the concrete balcony
Where a man of God is dead
Looking through an old window
See the painful past
Forever frozen at the last
Down the corridors of time
Different town, same old sign
Still bearing all the pain
In the halls of the old Lorraine
The sound of women weeping
The trickle of my tears
Join the moan of gospel singing
Wailing hope amid the fears
Looking through new windows
In spite of everything we still believ
Down the corridors of time
Different town, same old sign
Still bearing all the pain
In the halls of the old Lorraine
Driving through the city
With memories of that place
In that part of town that’s really gone down
I lock the door just in case
Looking through my car window
At a man who looks back at me
After all we’ve been through, we still can’t see.
Down the corridors of time
Different town, same old sign
Still bearing all the pain
In the halls of the old Lorraine
So I went to a party for a friend recently and the Alabama immigration bill came up. My friend, who is a business owner whose work is connected to the legal world, listened to the conversation, then said, “Look, there’s a simple solution to this. If you’re an immigrant in this state and undocumented, you have six months to come forward and get registered, and after that we kick you out.” But why would you do that, I asked, knowing you’d be thrown directly in jail, do not pass go or collect anything?
“Easy,” he said, “You give them a temporary worker status. They pay taxes and social security and contribute to the economy.” So it’s not citizenship? “No, of course not. You go to the back of the line for that. You can’t vote, you’re just a guest worker, and it’s a temporary status. But at least we know who you are and you contribute to the tax coffers.” Well, that sounded pretty good to me.
Seems to me that the point of law is compliance, not just punishment. If farmers need workers and immigrants can answer that need, that’s letting the marketplace and competition take care of it, not government quotas. Alabama’s farms and employer determine the number of immigrants by who they hire, not by Washington telling them we can only have this or that number. That’s conservative, and you have to announce that you’re conservative to even be elected dogcatcher in Alabama.
Furthermore, that’s smaller government. We don’t spend more money on jails, police, and bureaucracy. We keep the operation in Alabama rather than letting the federal government tell us what Alabama needs. That’s conservative, seems to me. More jails? More agencies from Washington?
But what about national security? Well, since 27 million people visit the US every year on a temporary basis for vacations, seems to me we can come up with a computerized fingerprinted criminal background check system.
Getting people registered lets us know who they are. Hiding in the shadows is more dangerous, not less. If they have a job, pay taxes, we have their fingerprints and know their name, we’re a lot safer than letting huge numbers of unknown people slink around unaccounted for. And that’s just the Canadians.
Of course, I can imagine the conversation in the Legislature, but since it’s my dream, maybe it would go like this:
“Well, if we do this, it’ll look like we’re backing off our promise to kick all those people out of Alabama. We’d look weak.”
“Yeah? Well, it might keep our tomato farmers and construction companies from kicking us out of Montgomery. Besides, the churches get off our backs, we calm the thing down and don’t look like hateful jerks to the world.”
“Hey, you know, you might have something there. We’d get sued, though, this time by the Feds for usurping their power to regulate immigration.”
“Of course, That’s our point. They’re not doing their job. Somebody needs to embarrass them into doing it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean forever, PR-wise, conservatives get painted as heartless, racist, uncaring and all of those other things that smear our state’s image. They always go back to the sixties and the race issue.”
“What’s your point?”
“My point is, here we are again, clobbering mostly helpless people with a law that makes us look mean, even if we’re just mirroring federal law. What if we went BEYOND federal law, but this time in a positive direction? We wouldn’t be giving them citizenship, we’d be granting temporary status. It could be based on having a job and references from our citizens. Local counties could administer the records, they pay a reasonable fee for the annual guest worker license, which we use to hire people to run those offices. They come out of the shadows and register. They pay taxes on their cars, income, and possessions like everybody else. They rent our apartments and houses, they work. They buy things.”
“Look, the Attorney General is going to sue us that this isn’t our right as a state.”
“Don’t you see the brilliance of this? Alabama gets sued by the Federal Government for being too compassionate and sane toward immigrants? When is the last time THAT happened?”
“Wow. Didn’t see that one coming. Brilliant!”
Not likely, I know. But it’s my dream. It COULD happen. I had never lived in Alabama until 18 years ago. The people are generous, kind, good to their neighbors, hard-working and always willing to do the right thing. They are conservative, but most are not the stereotypical meanies in the movies. Yes, we have our racists and plenty of them. And we have our fears. But mostly we just want things to be fair. So when my Senator said in the paper recently that they were going to tweak the bill and fix some things, I hoped once more. Alabama could do it. We could show the rest of the nation how polite, religious, caring neighbors treat strangers and fix a broken system. Let Eric Holder sue us for that. It would be a delight.
In the theater on Saturday to see “Tree of Life,” we watched the obligatory previews and saw with interest that a film version of “The Help” is coming in August. Allison Janney was one of the actresses I recognized, and heard enough to know this would be another butchered movie attempt to capture Southern accents. Anyone NOT from the South cannot hear the hundred subtleties in Southernspeak. We do not all sound like Foghorn Leghorn (“Ah, SAY-uh, ah sey-uh Miss Priss-ay”).
In the case of Mississippi, parts of Alabama and south Georgia you would be pretty close, but a little off is worse than way off, the linguistic equivalent of losing a baseball game on a balk in the ninth. You think, “they don’t know us, don’t know anything about where we live, who we are. What’s the deal? Most of ‘em still think we’re unchanged from the barking dogs and fire hoses and Atticus Finch. It’s as though the South is invisible.
According to Wikipedia: the movie “The Help” is about Aibileen, an African-American maid living in Mississippi in the early 1960s who cleans houses and cares for the young children of various white families.” There is a storyline about a campaign to get the white residents of Jackson to build separate bathrooms in their garage or carport for the use of the “colored” help. Characters with odd Southern names like Hilly and Skeeter are here, as well as Aibileen, another maid who has been through 19 jobs because she speaks out too much. A lot more develops, but pick up the book or see the film.
I started thinking about real life versions of “The Help” many times. As a minister you go and sit in people’s homes a lot, especially when things are going badly. Death, divorce, children run amuck, that sort of thing. You go as a holy man or woman and sit there, listening, trying to lend some presence to some terrifying absence. It can be anywhere: in nursing homes, assisted living or elegant suburban homes. The help, especially down south, some long-time worker for the family, inevitably comes in and brings me a glass of tea or says hello or dusts around us.
When my wife worked in welfare reform she got to know a lot of women who worked as domestics—cooks, maids, caretakers for the elderly, sitters and raisers of babies. Often they worked for more than one family to put food on the table. And if you wanted to know what was REALLY going on, talk to these women. It helps explain reality television, I think. Often I think, “Why on earth would you say that with cameras rolling? How can you be sincere and still know your being taped?” I suppose you just forget after a while and then, out it comes.
My wife Vickie used to say, “People forget and talk in front of their maids like they’re not there, and don’t realize that everything in their house is known.” Another way to put it is that these people become invisible. We stop seeing them, being aware of them, taking account of their presence.
I wondered recently as I thought about a really BAD immigration law passed by the Alabama legislature: “WHAT were they thinking?” At first I focused on the legal, financial and constitutional issues—how will we enforce it, who will pay for it, and so on. My question was, “Am I my brother’s Big Brother?” Absurdities occurred—will we build a wall like the Israelis to keep the Floridians and Mississippians out? But there were also somber thoughts—a lot of law enforcement may ignore it, but some might abuse it on people too scared and vulnerable to speak up. And also frustration that the federal government, whose real job it is, has failed to do their job. This is not a state issue. But let’s not go there.
Mainly I have been thinking about the help. The help are people who clean toilets and wash dishes and dig gardens and mow lawns and help build houses. They mop hospital halls and work long hours without complaining. And when they work their fingers to the bone for subsistence wages, we’re only too glad to let them do it. Then, when the bottom drops out of the Dow and we’re scared, we started passing laws that have a nice, authoritative sound to them. “Let’s stand up and do something.”
I called the governor’s office before this became law and told his staff I strongly opposed this law—unaffordable, unconstitutional, unenforceable. But mostly, if truth be told, I was thinking about the Old Testament and Jesus and all those passages in the Bible about the way we treat strangers and foreigners in our midst. There isn’t one passage in the Bible that says, “When they’re down and out, draw the line and shove ‘em out.” Find it if you can. No, it says, “You were strangers in Egypt. Don’t forget it. Don’t oppress widows and foreigners and orphans.” In other words, “Don’t tread harshly on people who can’t fight back.”
I am embarrassed by this law. We can do better. Nothing in it about the people already here or treating them with respect and hospitality or how to go from where we are to where we could be or even a mere way to authorize those already here to stay as guest workers. We didn’t even offer them a ride home. Just jails, fines, and, worse, the rest of us being tattlers to pull it off. It’s not that hard, it seems to me, to figure out. But that didn’t seem to get in this law.
A lot of our newcomers pretty soon become business owners and contractors themselves. They work hard and pull themselves up. I’ve met people who were doctors or dentists in their former country but work in menial jobs here because they are not “qualified” and they don’t complain. It’s a familiar story—like the 24 million immigrants who came into this country between 1860 and the 1920s—some of whose descendants sit in nice homes griping about immigrants.
Most of all, I feel like we got in the living room and made a decision affecting our maids and yard workers and day laborers and restaurant workers and lots of women and children. Many of them are legal and sometimes their families are not. It’s a mess, I admit. But we got in the living room and came up with a half-baked solution that, like those bathrooms in the garages in The Help will look absurd a few years down the line.
We committed the two great sins for Southern Christians. We were rude to strangers and we talked about things that affected the help’s lives as though they weren’t even there. And now our teachers and law enforcement folks and business owners are asked to fix it by becoming an enforcement bureau, ratting out first graders who don’t know anything about why they are here.
I’m for homeland security—career criminals don’t belong here, terrorists need to be stopped. I hate the ocean of drugs pouring over our borders as much as Mexico hates the avalanche of guns pouring over theirs. But maybe if we stopped talking about our help like they aren’t even there we could make distinctions between people who make us better and those who don’t.
We had the wrong kind of discussion and we ended up with a Rube Goldberg law. We can do better. We should do better. I pray we will.