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

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Chapter 12 of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, when Calpurnia determines that she has little choice other than to take Jem and Scout with her to the Colored peoples’ church, it is a major event for her.  As Lee describes Calpurnia’s mobilization to prepare the Finch children for this unusual outing, the African American housekeeper clearly views this as a serious endeavor:

“If Calpurnia had ever bathed me roughly before, it was nothing compared to her supervision of that Saturday night’s routine. She made me soap all over twice, drew fresh water in the tub for each rinse; she stuck my head in the basin and washed it with Octagon soap and castile. She had trusted Jem for years, but that night she invaded his privacy and provoked an outburst: “Can’t anybody take a bath in this house without the whole family lookin‘?”

“Next morning she began earlier than usual, to “go over our clothes.”

Calpurnia knows that taking the Caucasian Finch children to the African American church just outside of town will be seen by the other African American churchgoers as a rare sight with the potential to shock, which is precisely the reaction she and the children receive upon approaching the church:

“When they saw Jem and me with Calpurnia, the men stepped back and took off their hats; the women crossed their arms at their waists, weekday gestures of respectful attention. They parted and made a small pathway to the church door for us. Calpurnia walked between Jem and me, responding to the greetings of her brightly clad neighbors.”

For young children like Jem and Scout who have never been exposed to such a scene, their sentiments would definitely lean towards discomfort, a sensation certainly exacerbated by the first person to address them, Lula, clearly an ornery figure known to try to incite others.  Attempting to take Calpurnia to task for what Lula sees as Cal's imprudence, she immediately criticizes her actions, telling her neighbor that bringing white children to the black church is out-of-line:

“Lula stopped, but she said, ‘You ain’t got no business bringin‘ white chillun here—they got their church, we got our’n. It is our church, ain’t it, Miss Cal?’”

Unsurprisingly, Jem and Scout become fearful and ask Calpurnia to take them home.  Before she can respond, however, the children are greeted in a more kind and respectful manner by the others.  As Scout describes the scene, it becomes clear that Lula’s anger at the presence of the white children is not shared by the other churchgoers:

“When I looked down the pathway again, Lula was gone. In her place was a solid mass of colored people.  One of them stepped from the crowd. It was Zeebo, the garbage collector. “Mister Jem,” he said, “we’re mighty glad to have you all here. Don’t pay no ‘tention to Lula, she’s contentious because Reverend Sykes threatened to church her. She’s a troublemaker from way back, got fancy ideas an’ haughty ways—we’re mighty glad to have you all.”

The cordiality with which Jem and Scout are greeted by the members of Cal’s church clearly stands in contrast to what the reader of Lee’s novel know would be the situation if African American children were brought to the white church.  Lee humanizes the African Americans at the church and shows them to be eminently decent individuals.  The fate of Tom Robinson, however, would illuminate the disparities in the humanity separating the races in the town of Maycomb.

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CaitlynnReeves's profile pic

CaitlynnReeves | Student, Grade 12 | (Level 1) Salutatorian

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When Jem and Scout go to church with Calpurnia they are met, first, with hostility. Lula is not happy that white children are attending her church. This is an example of how racism can work in both directions (not only white people being prejudiced but black people as well). However, just like not all white people display prejudice in this book, not all of Calpurnia's church members are rude to Jem and Scout. 

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rachellopez | Student, Grade 12 | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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When Calpurnia took the children to church with her, it was much different than their usual church. Everyone was shocked because they weren't used to white children coming to an all African American church. However they were treated with respect and were glad to have the children come to church. However there was one person who said bring them was "out of line" and that was Lula. She was the only exception. They also began to learn more about Calpurnia after that trip to the church.

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