Sunday, August 28, 2011

"We Didn't Know..."

Shortly after moving to our new home here in Nashville, TN, Alan and I were thrilled to find our new church home. The only problem was that the existing pastor was leaving, and the new one wasn't set to arrive for several months.  So, the church elders called on a former retired pastor, who graciously accepted the offer to serve in the interim.  He (let's call him Pastor Jim) was a old man with glasses, a kind face, and thick Southern drawl.

The congregation seemed thrilled to have Pastor Jim and welcomed him back with open arms and happy hearts.  When he walked up to the podium to deliver his first sermon, he paused, looked over at the high school choir, and smiled as he remarked that he was pretty sure he had baptized just about every one of them when they were infants.  Then he began his message.

That was over three months ago.  We now have our new leader and the interim pastor has gone happily back into retirement.  But I must admit the words he spoke that first day have stuck with me ever since.  I can't get them out of my head.  I'd really love to get your opinion about them.  Here's a gist of what his sermon entailed:

The topic was about two forms of sin. One is the most obvious, when we KNOW what we're about to do is wrong, yet we do it anyway.  Like the shoplifter who grabs merchandise off the shelves and puts it in his pocket.  He KNOWS stealing is wrong and a sin (Thou shalt not steal), but he does it anyway.

The other form of sin, the pastor explained, was the kind when we commit an act, but we're unaware we are doing wrong.  Jim chose this example to prove his point:  He said he remembered being a young boy in high school back in the 50's, and how much he and his buddies loved going down to the local drugstore to drink root beer floats and chocolate milkshakes. He said there was a sign over the counter that read "Whites Only."  A little further down was the "Colored Section."  Pastor Jim pointed out that this was a sin.  But "We just didn't know."

Really?  You didn't know?  You didn't know that it was wrong to treat another human being this way?  I tell you, I can't get those words out of my brain.  "We just didn't know." Wow.

I'm trying very hard, I promise you, not to be judgmental on this.  (That would also be a sin, by the way!).  I grew up in the suburbs of Ohio, where all of my classmates were white and middle class.  We had one Jewish boy, I remember, and we pretty much accepted him, except at Christmastime when we mercilessly grilled him about his Hannukkah traditions ("Seriously?  Santa doesn't visit your house?  REALLY?  How do you cope?").  I have no idea what it was like to deal with bussing or racial unrest in my community.   But I will say that I was raised to treat everyone, EVERYONE, with kindness and respect.

I volunteer with my new best friend, Michelle, at a local charity that provides books for underprivileged children.  Michelle is the volunteer coordinator.  One day a week we are joined by another volunteer, a 60 year old woman we'll call Roberta.  Roberta is a fast, hard worker.  Roberta is also a blatant racist.  Her views come out loud and clear in the conversations we have while processing books, and I must tell you many of her comments have left both Michelle and I speechless.

At the end of a rather strenuous day recently, the three of us were walking back to our cars when Roberta asked Michelle and I, "Have either of you seen 'The Help?'" She was referring to the movie just released starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, and Octavia Spencer involving black maids in the early sixties in the town of Jackson, Mississippi.  The women basically cooked, cleaned, and raised Southern white children.  In turn, they were treated as second class citizens.  Emma Stone's character, a young journalist, convinces the black women to tell their side of the story, for an article she is writing for Harper's Bazaar.  The stories are an immediate hit and are made into book form, much to the dismay of all of the white women in Jackson.

When Michelle and I informed Roberta that we had not, in fact, seen the movie, she rolled her eyes and said she didn't plan on seeing it at all. When we asked her why not, she waved her hand dismissively and stated, "It's characterized bullshit. That's just how we treated black people back then.  We didn't know it was wrong.  Nobody did."

There was that phrase again.  "We didn't know..."  So today, my friend Michelle and I went to see "The Help."  It was a terrific movie with Oscar-worthy performances delivered by several of the actresses.  But I must tell you, my friends, I'm still so appalled that we treated each other this way.  This wasn't one hundred years ago, this was less than fifty.  And Roberta is proof that this way of thinking still exists.

Michelle and I stood outside the theater after the movie ended, still contemplating it's message.  Michelle's story is different from mine, in that she was raised in the Deep South, in New Orleans, LA.   She told me she distinctly remembers her mother escorting her to her first day of elementary school when desegregation was initially enforced. The teacher approached her mother and cried in a hushed tone, "Good Lord, I've got four of THEM in my classroom!"

Michelle's mother was also strongly opposed to her serving as a bridesmaid in her black friend's wedding.  There were ten bridesmaids, Michelle was the only white one.  When she asked her mother why she disapproved, her only reply was, "It's just not done, that's all."

Michelle, being the smart, awesome, headstrong lady that she is, told me that she was raised with all the prejudice and bigotry as everyone else at the time.  But she KNEW it was wrong, and she chose to reject it.   This is just one of the many reasons why Michelle completely rocks.

"The Help" displayed a variety of women, each of them choosing a different way of dealing with the issue. Some, like Emma Stone's character, knew it was unjust and tried to do something about it.  Others, like her mother, portrayed by Allison Janney, also knew it was wrong, but lacked the courage to do anything.  It was easier for her to go along with what the others thought than to take a stand.  Then there were the others, those that "Didn't know..."

So, I really want to know your opinion on this. How were you raised?  Did your beliefs change or stay the same once you matured?  Do you believe those that say, "We didn't know?"  Thank you in advance for your comment, I can't wait to read your view!!  Also,

Thanks for Reading!!