I grew up in North Carolina (American South) in the 80s and 90s. I’ve lived and worked in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest of the United States, as well as in England for a time. I’ve traveled around a bit as well. So it is not without some experience that I say that I have never been anywhere that did not have some kind of racial or social tension. It is not always black and white. Sometimes it is indigenous and interloper. Sometimes it is an economic disparity- emphasized by color or ethnicity. It’s always been there. Someone always sighs and says, “Those people…” and a choice must be made by the hearer to call attention to subtle racism, overt bigotry, “gentlemen’s agreements”, and inappropriate assumptions that only serve to perpetuate the foundational lies of the unequal structures of our societies.
Regrettably, churches are not exempt from these behaviors.
With this in mind, I encourage you to read Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler. A novel less like The Help and more like Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (read it!), it takes place in a time collapse between 1939 and the present day (whatever that might be). The premise of the story is a ninety-year-old white woman and a black woman in her mid-thirties on their way to a funeral. The younger woman, Dorrie, works as a hair dresser, with her own shop, and has done Isabelle’s hair for year. Their relationship has deepened, but only so far.
On the road trip to the funeral, Isabelle tells Dorrie the story of her first romance- her true love romance- with the son of her family’s housekeeper. Robert and Isabelle, black and white, were in love, but out of time in 1939 since her Kentucky hometown did not allow blacks to stay in the city limits after dark.
The writing is excellent and the dialogue is believable and warm. The truly villainous characters are a little two-dimensional, but they are also tertiary. The main characters are fully enfleshed and empathetic. The secondary personalities have enough character to make the reader care about them and be angry with them.
The story moves back and forth between the racial dynamics of the late 30s and of the “present-day”. If Isabelle is 90 and was 17 in 1939, the “present day” of the book is 2012. The tensions between Isabelle and Dorrie and strangers who encounter them on their road trip are all too real with a hotel manager who refuses to believe they’re together, restaurant patrons who stare, and a cop who grudgingly gives a speeding ticket to Dorrie because of Isabelle’s presence. The two women even have to deal with their own latent expectations and interpretations of one another’s behavior- always glimpsed through a lens of different races.
Church makes a brief active appearance in this book via the angry pastor who refuses to officiate a wedding for Robert and Isabelle and a kind clergyman who does officiate, after trying to dissuade them. Isabelle reflects later on the churches of her town that support the rules of city segregation. Church also serves as a backdrop for how they can meet and see one another.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of many significant events in the civil rights struggle in the United States, I’ve been reflecting on how far we have and have not come in those years. Regrettably, tensions still exist. The furor over a biracial family in a breakfast cereal ad proves that the Great Chain of Being still rules the thinking of a significant portion of the population.
Is the church still in this fight? Have we come to accept inequality, injustice, and social spacing as inevitable? Is the fight for racial parity on par with other social issues of our time or do we think it’s over? We cannot assume that part of the kingdom will come without our willingness to participate in the work.
This book, a gentle and almost unremarkable read, opens the doors for conversations in our congregations and communities. What do our men and women’s circles look like? What does the youth group look like? We don’t integrate for integration’s sake, but because corporate worship means the corpus must come together, in all its colors, races, ethnicities, and orientations.
I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys contemporary fiction and for church book groups.