I just finished Miss Willie by Janice Holt Giles for book club. It was a book I honestly wasn’t too excited about: a middle-aged woman goes to take on the challenge of being a a school teacher in the poverty of Appalachia. I feel like I’ve read this book before (Christy, anyone?). But I ended up getting immersed in Giles’s beautiful language and her portrayal of Miss Willie’s realistic inner life. Miss Willie also comes to an epiphany at the end of the novel that coincides with another book I’ve been reading — When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself.
This book talks about the best ways to help others, mostly the idea of working with the poor, not foisting our “help” upon them.
Miss Willie comes to a similar conclusion and Giles writes this inner process in such a true way that I will quote it at length here:
“She had come to the ridge thinking: These poor people! They need help so badly. They need me, Miss Willie Payne, so badly. She had been horrified and shocked at conditions, and she had gone about preaching and lecturing. She had known the right way to do all things, and she had never hesitated to say so. She had pitied these people and patronized them. And what people of pride ever wanted pity or patronage!
But she had tried so earnestly to help them! She had tried. The wrong way, maybe. But she had tried everything! Everything? Now her heart told her. Everything…but love! She remembered crying out to Mary: “Where can you start? Where can you start?” You start with the people…and you start with love for the people! ‘The gift without the giver is bare’! And she had never given of herself! Her time, her energy, her knowledge. But not herself! She winced from that thought, but she faced it in all its bitter gall. She had never loved them!
Love was the way. And lovelessness had been her greatest sin. Out of a dim, long memory Miss Willie remembered a text of her father’s. ‘Take my yoke…and I will make it easy.’ The words came back to her now, and repeated themselves over and over. ‘Take my yoke.’ ‘Take my yoke.’ That most perfect One had lived ‘together’ with the people. What did He mean by his yoke? ‘Take my yoke…and I will make it easy.’ Could He have meant — was it possible His yoke had been living and working with people who never understood Him? Common, ordinary, ignorant people, who didn’t listen and who wouldn’t change? People who didn’t want anything better than they had? People who were dirty, diseased, and foul sometimes, and who were clean and noble and fine other times? People who loved and hated, fought and made peace, witnessed against their neighbors and then stood by them? Could He have meant living with them and loving them just as they were, unchanged and unchanging?
Like the eastern sun flooding the sky with light, Miss Willie understood in a flashing, transfiguring moment what it meant. It meant to live together…under the yoke, together! Not one standing above, reaching down to pull the others up! Not one saying, ‘I must help these people’! It meant, instead, the banding and linking of people, one to another, in love and pity and yearning. It meant saying, ‘My people’; not, ‘These people.’ It meant getting under the yoke alongside of people, one with them, pulling the load with them. Not standing aside telling them how to pull! It meant grieving with them, and sorrowing with them, and laboring with them, and laughing with them, and most of all, it meant loving with them. ‘Take my yoke’! He had been yoked with the people. He had meant, then, live with them where they are. Love them as they are. Take the yoke, and life it. All lift together!”
She says it well: words I have thought myself, words I’ve been ashamed of, words of challenge, words of the true Kingdom of God.