John Paul Carter
William Barclay tells the story of a servant who was sent to meet a train on which his master’s friend, an English nobleman, was supposed to arrive. The servant, who had never met the man, asked his master, “How will I recognize him?” To which his master replied, “He will be a tall man helping somebody.” What a description!
I thought of that story after seeing the excellent film version of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, The Help.
Set in Jackson, Miss., in 1962, the movie tells the story of three extraordinary women — Skeeter, a recent graduate of Ole Miss who aspires to be a writer, and two black maids, Aibileen and Minny. Unlikely partners in a clandestine project to make public the working conditions of black maids in southern households, their courage and determination forever changes a town and the way women — mothers, daughters, caregivers and friends — view and relate to one another.
The Help exposes the blatantly cruel and unjust treatment of black caregivers by their prejudiced, white employers in a caste system based on race. At the same time, it graphically portrays a destructive human trait that is at the heart of slavery and racism, but is as old as human history. Wendell Berry describes it as “our inordinate desire to be superior — not to some inferior or subject people — but to our own condition. We wish to rise above the sweat and bother of taking care of anything — of ourselves, of each other or of our country.”
As with the novel’s Hilley and her friends, there is in our society the pervasive belief there are kinds of labor that are beneath us. It causes us to strive for a lifestyle that can afford to hire others to take care of the menial tasks, the dirty work and the physical labor — often at less than a living wage. As a result, those who do such work are sometimes treated as second-class human beings.
In the movie, the tragedy went beyond what was happening to the black maids and extended to the relationship between their white employers and their children. Because the maids did almost all the caregiving for the children — changing, dressing, feeding, bathing, doctoring, playing, reading — the children became more bonded to the maids than to their own mothers. This diminished relationship between mother and child even continued into adulthood.
The lesson is clear that when we avoid the most basic kinds of labor, we weaken our essential relationships — with each other, ourselves, the earth and our maker. It is the menial (from the Latin: “household”), repeated over and over, that binds us to each other.
Facing those same attitudes and practices in his day, Jesus identified himself as “the help.” He told his followers that he “came not to be served, but to serve.” And on the night when he was betrayed, Jesus not only shared the bread and cup with his disciples, but also washed their feet.
By teaching and example, Jesus made it clear that to follow him is to join the ranks of “the help,” humbly serving each other and the world — not as second-class citizens, but as his “friends.”
In our search for wholeness, the doctor of Lambarene, Albert Schweitzer, points the way: “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”
John Paul Carter’s “Notes from the Journey” appear in the Democrat’s Religion page on the second and fourth Fridays of each month. Carter, an ordained minister who attends Central Christian Church, may be contacted by writing him at 107 Bent Oak Road, Weatherford, 76086.