Thursday, July 28, 2011

As Simple As Black and White

Simply friends and sisters in Christ
I just finished reading The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, and I'm trembling on the inside. I grew up in Biloxi, Mississippi, three hours away from Jackson, the setting of this story. The street and church names are familiar to me, and I have shopped at Jitney Jungle. (Yes, there were real grocery stores called Jitney Jungle — JJ in my checkbook.)

My mom was raised by a black maid named Ruby, although I'm pretty sure I only know Ruby from the few stories my mom has told. The most vivid are of Ruby wringing the neck of a chicken from the back yard to cook for dinner, and Mom teaching Ruby to drive on Brodie Road. Brodie Road was was where I lived as a girl, one generation removed from black maids in white Southern households. So I'm not overstating it when I say I tremble.

I thought the white women in the story were overdone, with caricature amounts of catty and shallow, but a friend who lived in the South in the '60s and read the book says, "It really was like that." And perhaps it's true with their silver table settings, bridge club meetings, and women's leagues. Sad.

There was a Jitney Jungle in New Orleans, too, right beside the seminary where Mike and I lived for almost three years.  The seminary was known as an oasis because the campus was a safe haven in an otherwise "rough" area of the New Orleans inner city.  I have to admit I stopped alone in that Jitney one night late (it was unavoidable) and I was the only white person in there. 

I was afraid.

But was it black skin or inner city desperation that leads to drugs and crime that unnerved me? I'll never really know.

Years later, we find ourselves in Columbia, South Carolina, leading a multi-cultural congregation. A racially mixed church doesn't just happen by chance in Columbia, South Carolina, not even in the 21st century. History can be hard to shake. But we were intentional about it, going into housing projects and family shelters to minister. And the God who will have every tribe and tongue and nation and people group in heaven blessed our efforts to cross socio-economic and cultural boundaries with the cross.

 Now, my kids are growing up as witnesses that every dividing difference can and should be overcome by the body of Christ. We have embraced food-stamp recipients and former drug-addicted prisoners as equal, valuable, contributing members of our church. The blood of Jesus and love really do cover a multitude of sins and transforms us, even the well-educated suburbanites among us.

This book poignantly explores our hang-ups, our short-comings, our fears, our ignorance, our courage — both black and white, and how complicated relationship can be when squeezed by social conformity. It portrays the audacity to look at the failings of the past as something that can stop at any given time, if we would deem them important enough and take the risk.

Sure, there was some foul language from several of the characters, but I'm glad I didn't let that or the ugly issues this book addresses keep me from its lessons. We, in our selfish insecurities, have made much gray area out of what should be as simple as black and white.

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