“The Help” of Our Day

Recently, my wife and I went to see the movie The Help.  Based on a popular 2009 novel written by Kathryn Stockett, The Help tells the story of a Skeeter Phelan, an ambitious white woman fresh out of college in Jim Crow-era Mississippi, as she seeks to chronicle the lives of African-American maids.  The real heroines of the story are two black domestic workers, Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson, who courageously share their own lives’ experiences in print, exposing the lie of the “separate but equal” mentality that white folks in power used to justify mistreatment and oppression.

In hindsight, even just fifty years removed from the reality of Jim Crow, the injustice perpetrated against African-Americans is appalling.  At the time, though, as the film portrays accurately, most white people of the region either were blinded to the sinful systems at work around them or actively defended them—because their own economic and social interests were closely tied to the maintenance of the status quo.  The church was, for the most part, complicit as well: while the African-American church led a biblically-grounded struggle for justice (we get a glimpse of this in the film as Aibileen references God as her source of courage and strength), most white churches—particularly the white evangelical churches—refused to speak out on behalf of their African-American brothers and sisters.  In some cases, white people even twisted Scripture to justify oppressive treatment of people made in God’s image; The Help illustrates this reality, as well, in a character named Hilly, whose treats her own maids cruelly while proudly calling herself a Christian.

It’s easy to condemn the sins of our past and repent of our parents’ and grandparents’ tolerance of injustice, but harder to recognize where we might be complicit with systemic injustice today.  There are many broken systems in our society, but at least one area that I think we would do well to look at would be our immigration system.  In many cases, the “help” today is an undocumented Mexican, Central American, Polish, or Filipino maid, who keeps the house clean and raises the children of those who can afford help, even while their own children raise themselves or are cared for by a relative in a less affluent part of town or, in some cases, back in the country of origin.  Likewise, it is often undocumented immigrant workers who pick the crops that the rest of us eat, care for our elderly in nursing homes, mow our loans, cook our food at restaurants, and clean our hotel rooms.  When those workers are mistreated—many employers treat their undocumented workers well, but exploitation is sadly common amongst others—they are often afraid to complain because they fear that speaking up could lose them their job or lead to their deportation.  These undocumented workers play such an important part of our economy, though, that our society as a whole has been unwilling to shake up the system.  In Texas, for example, a proposed law to tighten penalties on employers of undocumented immigrants specifically excepted those who employ undocumented maids, caretakers, lawnworkers, or other household help  from penalties because, as a Republican legislator said in explaining the law, without the exception “a large segment of the Texas population [would be] in prison.”

This begs the question: how does the Church in the United States respond to issues of systemic injustice?  As Peter Goodwin Heltzel notes in Jesus & Justice: Evangelicals, Race, & American Politicswhite evangelical churches mostly sat out on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  Many white evangelical leaders feared that affirming the biblically-grounded call for justice issued by our African-American brothers and sisters might upset some of the folks in our congregations, who might stop tithing or leave the church altogether.  Unfortunately, we were so focused on “nickels and noses” that we hid behind unjust laws and, in the words of Jesus, “neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).

As a film like The Help causes us to reflect on the Civil Rights Movement, we would do well to ask if we have learned the lesson of this embarrassing period of our history.  I worry that—while national evangelical institutions such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention are actively speaking out for justice for immigrants, in positive contrast to their responses to the Civil Rights Movement—fear of upsetting complicit constituencies at the local level has led many white evangelical pastors to keep silent on the issue of immigration, which African-American leader John Lewis, who risked his life in the Freedom Rides through the South in 1961, now says is the newest frontier of the Civil Rights Movement.

One of the moist poignant scenes in The Help occurs when Skeeter’s mother, who fired the long-time maid who had raised Skeeter in order to save face with her high-society friends, commends her daughter for elevating the voices of African-American maids like Aibileen and Minny: “Courage sometimes skips a generation,” she says.  My prayer for the Church in the United States—particularly the evangelical corner of the Church with which I identify—is that our generation would listen to the stories of “the help” of our day—undocumented workers—and have the courage to stand with them for justice.

This blog originally appeared on UnDocumented.tv on August 29, 2011.