What insights do Jem and Scout gain from attending church with Calpurnia, and why is this experience special to Calpurnia in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jem and Scout gain more insight into Atticus's axiom on climbing into someone's skin and walking around in it because they actually do this when they visit Calpurnia's skin.

While Calpurnia takes the children along to her church in order to prevent a re-occurrence of the mischief in which they became involved at their own church the last time Atticus was at the state capital, she may also wish them to see just how the other race in Maycomb lives so that they will gain insights into the life of the man their father is going to defend in court. For, although the children are aware of the separation of the races in their culture, they do not fully understand the extent of the socio-economic disparities that exist.

By being with the black congregation in their own church, Jem and Scout come to the realization that they have taken for granted that every congregation has what the members of their church have. That is, they have assumed that the members of any congregation have money to contribute to the collection, they have ceilings in their church, and they have hymn-books that they can read. In addition, the Finch children gain an understanding of the resentment of some on the issue of segregation and that hatred has more than one side to it. While they have "climbed into the skin" of the other race and shared an experience with them, they have also found that kindness abounds more in those who have been deprived than those on the other side. 

That Calpurnia led a modest double life never dawned on me. The idea that she had a separate existence outside our household was a novel one....

Certainly, by taking the children with her to her church, Calpurnia has accomplished much more than she ever could by just explaining things to the children.

bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Above all else, Jem and Scout gain valuable insight to the very different lives of Maycomb's African-American population. Calpurnia is obviously very proud of the Finch children and makes sure that they are looking their best when they arrive at First Purchase A.M.E. She is also very proud of her church, and though it is not mentioned much in the novel, Calpurnia is a spiritual person whose church life plays a major part of her life. Calpurnia takes the children specifically because Atticus is out of town, and she does not trust the kids to attend their own church unsupervised.

Among the things that the children learn during their visit:

  • The definition of "linin'," in which the mostly illiterate congregation repeats the lines of each hymn after they are read to them.
  • Why there are no hymnals (most of the congregation can't read, and they can't afford them anyway).
  • That at least one person (specifically Lula) does not appreciate the appearance of white faces at the church.
  • That everyone else is respectful to them.
  • That Reverend Sykes is quite persistent in raising the $10 collection to go to Tom Robinson's family.
  • That they enjoy their visit with Cal so much that Scout wants to visit their housekeeper at her home as well.
  • That people (be they black or white) are just people.
Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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