How are Jem and Scout treated at Calpurnia's church in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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bullgatortail's profile pic

bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Jem and Scout are treated with the utmost respect from the congregation of the First Purchase Church--with one exception. When Calpurnia's friends first saw her with Jem and Scout,

... the men stepped back and took off their hats; the women crossed their arms at their waists, weekday gestures of respectful attention.

But one woman objected to the presence of the white children at the black church.

     "I wants to know why you bringin' white chillun to nigger church."

The question came from Lula, a "bullet-headed" woman with an "Indian-bow mouth." She didn't care for Cal's decision to accompany Jem and Scout.

"... they got their church, we got our'n."

Lula's objection to their presence caused Jem to tell Cal that they should return home, but in a flash, the remainder of the congregation soon crowded Lula out of the way, and

When I looked down the pathway again, Lula was gone.

After that, Jem and Scout were made to feel at home. Reverend Sykes "led us to the front pew," announced their presence from the pulpit, and he made time to speak with the children afterwards. Scout is so impressed that she asks Cal if she can visit her at her own house in the Quarters some day.

tamarakh's profile pic

Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Chapter 12 of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird when Jem and Scout enter the all-black church with Calpurnia, they are at first given a very mixed reception that leads them to feel unwelcome. The men at the church are very respectful, but the women display an attitude of judgement and distrust echoed in comments made by Lula.

Scout describes in her narration that, when the congregation outside of the church saw the children walking towards the church door with Calpurnia, the men "stepped back and took off their hats." Stepping back is a respectful gesture because, in stepping back, they are making room for Calpurnia to walk down the path with the children. Plus, a gentleman taking off his hat in greeting is always a sign of respect. However, while the men take off their hats, the women cross "their arms at their waists." Scout uses verbal irony to call both of these gestures "weekday gestures of respectful attention," yet crossing one's arms is a complicated gesture not linked to a show of respect. We cross our arms to give ourselves comfort or to restrain ourselves when feeling stressed, insecure, anxious, or afraid. We often do it when we are seriously focused on an issue ("9 Truths Exposing a Myth About Body Language," Psychology Today). Hence, the women crossing their arms is a sign that they are seriously examining the situation of the white children being present because they are not fully comfortable with it.

The women's discomfort is echoed in Lula's comments as she accosts Calpurnia, saying, "I wants to know why you bringin' white chillun to nigger church." These comments make Scout and Jem feel like they are unwelcome at the church.

Yet, while Lula's comments may reflect what other women in Calpurnia's church are thinking, all women but Lula are willing to be led by the more reasonable men. Led by the men, the rest of the congregation chases Lula away, and "Zeebo, the garbage collector" is the first to say that the congregation is "mighty glad to have you all here." Due to Zeebo's warm welcome, followed by Reverend Sykes's greeting, the children feel at ease and stay for the service.


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