The latest issue of the Christian Courier takes the question of belonging as its theme, with a particular focus on issues of race and culture. Here is my “column” for this issue.
The theme of belonging is rich with challenge and possibility and it seemed to me that I would do better not to try and explore this theme merely on my own. As a result, I share with you the content of an interview/exchange I had with the Rev. Oliver Kondeh Ndula, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon and a graduate student at McGill University/The Presbyterian College, here in Montreal.
RDV: The idea of “belonging” is understood in variety of ways. How do you understand “belonging”?
OKN: I understand “belonging” to mean the ease with which people get integrated into communities, especially communities other than those of their origin. From this perspective the concept is dualistic. On the one hand the other needs to take the initiative to get integrated into his/her new community. On the other hand, the new community can either facilitate or impair the process.
RDV: Do you think it is possible to fully belong in some place or community?
OKN: I would say not exactly! For one thing, people’s world views are different and that constitutes an impediment to total integration. There is always this tendency in humans to judge the ways of others and to disapprove of them because they are different from theirs. In some cases, the disapproval is articulated, but in most cases, it can be through non verbal communication.
RDV: Have you perceived differences in how “belonging” is understood between your home context and the Canadian context?
OKN: Of course. For one thing, Cameroonians value community over individualism and that has an effect in the way they perceive “belonging”. As such my reading of the Cameroonian perception is that they try as much as possible to make the other feel a sense of belonging, even when they have a negative impression of the one. They may talk ill of the “stranger” behind his or her back, but they can go to great lengths to make the one comfortable even by sacrificing their own comforts. Many Canadians on the other hand, are too honest to the point that they just won’t do what inconveniences them, an attitude many Cameroonians may judge as impairing community.
RDV: Thinking about the Canadian context, what is the most significant thing others have done to give you a sense of belonging?
OKN: I would greatly commend the Canadian context for the commitment with which service providers render their services. For about one and a half years that I have been here, I can’t remember any office to which I went and was treated shabbily. Even when I found it hard to understand something either because of accent, or even because it was a concept with which I am not familiar, I always found a patient ear willing to serve me. At such times, I felt a strong sense of belonging in my new community.
RDV: What are the most significant things others have said or done to make you feel like you don’t belong?
OKN: I remember an incident, when I was serving as Interim Dean of Residence in Summer 2018. A homeless middle-aged man decided to spend the night in the courtyard of the College and a resident called my attention to it. When I politely but firmly insisted that the one should leave, he eventually succumbed but before he did, he made very racist statements. He wondered aloud how a “n- – -” like me would come to his country and tell him what to do! He blamed the situation on a government that has opened their country to all kinds of “n- – -s”.
RDV: This difficult encounter makes me think both of the harsh way this man tried to diminish your belonging to a community and also the way in which he has perhaps lost his belonging to a wider community, based on his homelessness and other possible life experiences.
OKN: In addition to your comment, it makes me think of how he might have felt as he left the courtyard. Could it be that since this space belonged to a Christian institution, he felt refused by the same people who are supposed to take in the homeless? I actually felt bad as he left, as I wondered what might have become of him, if he got turned away from everywhere he went.
RDV: Are there ways that people resist belonging in your Cameroonian context?
OKN: Sure! Heightened by the multiplicity of ethnic groups in Cameroon, there is much, even if often covert hostility between indigenes and settlers. The former would often give the impression that the others are welcome, but there is always some resentment. Sometimes this can even take the use of some derogatory slangs to describe the settlers such as “come-no-go” (a pidgin expression meaning one who came visiting and has refused to leave; “Les anglofous” (a derogatory term used on anglophone by Francophones); and “francofools” and “frogs” (two terms used by anglophones to ridicule Francophones).
RDV: As you have already seen, this kind of hostility isn’t unknown or uncommon in the Canadian context. What is your sense of how our belonging is transformed by our faith in Christ?
OKN: Belonging is transformed by our faith in Christ in that any Christian community worth the name can never fail to be conscious that we are only Christians by being grafted into a community to which we originally did not belong (Romans 11:17, 24). Thus, faith in Christ facilitates belonging, for it reminds all that no one owns any particular community, just like none is a “stranger” in any part of God’s earth.
RDV: In our personal lives we face opportunities and challenges in belonging. How does faith in Jesus shape your approach to the question of belonging?
OKN: Personally, I try to make empathy my watchword, and I would recommend the same to all who have found faith in Jesus, the one who incarnates inclusivity. Just like we all resent it when our sense of belonging is hampered, so do others feel.