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My Help

Callie lived in a manufactured home that backed up to I-65 about 30 minutes down south of Birmingham. I grew up in a five-bedroom brick home in the wealthiest hamlet in the great state of Alabama. Callie’s and my lives intersected at my grandparents’ farm. (My Midwestern husband’s grandmother jokes that it can’t even be called a “farm,” since it only grew swimming pools and tennis courts. But I think the horses count.) Callie was my grandparents’ cook. When I’d go to the farm to play on the hay bales or cut down the family Christmas tree, Callie was there. She’d also babysit my sister and me when my parents vacationed in Cabo or Aspen. She was a soft, warm black woman in her 50s. Her generous laugh was sweeter than a songbird’s tune. Though Callie was a cook, I can’t remember a single dish that she made.

What I remember is how she asked what was going on in my life. And she really meant it. She knew more about me growing up than my own family did. She told me I was kind, smart, and important. But the most important thing she taught me was the gospel.

Across the Mouth

In 1998 Alabama was looking to salvage its football season. At that year’s annual Iron Bowl against the rival Auburn Tigers, I had a seat in the stands with my parents and sister. I was thoroughly enjoying the family tradition, and the fact that we were winning. Andrew Zow was coming off the field after an unsuccessful offensive drive. The man in front of me yelled, “That’s what you get for playing an n——at quarterback!” The air didn’t move for two seconds. I stopped and held my breath. This is the Alabama that they talk about. This is the Alabama that I do not want to know. Then his wife slapped him. Right across the mouth. That took care of his mouth. But what about his heart?

In Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling book The Help, the hope in the end is that people will learn to value each other as people, no matter their differences. And in the South that I know and love, I’d say that much progress has been made toward that admirable goal. It’s no longer socially acceptable to openly spout racism. But the subtle sin of not loving thy neighbor still lurks in more hidden corners. I’m not naïve enough to think that it’s been extracted from the heart.

So what hope do we have? We have the gospel of Jesus Christ. Callie was the first person—in fact the only person in my childhood—who talked with me about the Bible. My family was not churchgoing, despite the social pressures of the Bible Belt. Callie taught me about God’s character and the sacrifice of his Son. She saw in me the real problem, the real reason to lose hope: this little white girl was not saved. I praise the Lord for Callie and the risk she took on me—to preach to me in a family unreceptive to God. I think about her more than she can possibly know.

Complications of Adulthood

Callie still lives in her home on I-65. She even looks after my little cousins from time to time. So why do I speak of her in the past tense? What happened was that I grew up. I went to a Yankee college far away, and the close relationships that white children have with their African American caretakers grow into the complications of adulthood. I invited Callie to my hometown wedding. She was one of the few people whose RSVP I regularly looked out for. Callie told my mother that she’d come and bring her son. The day of my wedding, I scanned the white crowd, looking for Callie’s bright, smiling face. She did not come. It hurt me for years.
Until I realized what it would have meant for her to come. She would have been the only person like herself not wearing an apron and offering hors d’oeuvres. The scars of the past, of the 1960s Deep South, still have their consequences. But we have a hope beyond putting the hatred out of view and raising good people. We have the hope of adoption into a new family. A family where black and white are truly brothers and sisters. Eating together at the wedding feast of the Lamb.

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