Belonging and Exclusion – A Conversation

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.

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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.

 

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The language of death – new column #MAID

We all know the power of language within public debates. In such debates, most participants will use language that aligns their point of view with that of the wider culture. And most will try to distance themselves, lexically, from attitudes and actions that have negative connotations. In the abortion debate, for example, both sides describe their own position in positive terms – as either pro-life or pro-choice. We know that our language shapes public perceptions, and will shape the debate, and so we respond accordingly.

The question of this column is how to describe a certain kind of death. The death I’m referring to is that of a person who has a serious sickness that causes her substantial pain and suffering – and that pain and suffering cannot be relieved to her satisfaction. Her natural death is reasonably foreseeable and, at her request and with her consent, a medical practitioner gives her a series of injections that kill her cause her to die.

Within the Canadian context there is now agreement that this kind of death should be called “medical aid in dying.” This is the language now used in legislative frameworks, by most medical practitioners, and in public discourse generally. Continue reading

Daycare Debate (reprised)

A piece I wrote 14 years ago this month, published in the Montreal Gazette.  Time has flown, but the cultural issues are much the same.

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A child’s first birthday is a wonderful event in the life of a family – filled with balloons, cake and party hats.  For many parents, however, the joy of first-birthday celebrations is tempered by the realization that mom’s year of federally-subsidized maternity leave is coming to an end.  Going back to work means finding someone else to take care of a child.  And as my wife and I recently discovered, a year of advanced notice doesn’t make it any easier to work through this time of transition.

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They are all angels while sleeping.

As a part-time pastor and full-time graduate student, caring for our little one didn’t seem to be in the cards for me – time was in short supply.  And my wife was returning to full-time work as a nurse.  Her twelve-hour shifts, seven days out of fourteen, meant that we needed someone to care for our daughter two or three days a week.

Thus it was that we turned to daycare, that near-universal institution, to solve our dilemma.  It wasn’t easy to find a daycare that would accept a child for only two or three days each week (five-dollar-a-day daycare seems only to be available to those who part with their children five days a week), but we eventually found a non-subsidized daycare space we thought would be good for our daughter.

The first week of September our daycare ordeal began – and it was an ordeal.  Day one was no problem – our daughter found everything new and interesting at the daycare.  Day two wasn’t so pleasant – this time she knew that mom and dad were leaving her behind and she clearly expressed her displeasure.  Days three through four left us guilt-ridden and in tears – our little one was equally teary-eyed on each morning’s hand-off, and again at pick-up. Continue reading

“may I have a word” — confession and correction #sermon

Has anyone every pulled you aside and said: “You know, what you are doing is really not a great idea.”

Has anyone ever pulled you aside and said: “You know, you better stop and think about what you’re saying.”

When someone pulls you aside it’s generally because they care about you – they want to put the brakes on something you’re doing or saying before you get carried away. They care about you, and so instead of speaking to you publicly in a way that might make you look back or shame you – they gently pull you aside to have private word with you. Continue reading

esteem for the everyday – Mary, Weaving, and Peruvian culture

At the Musée des beaux-arts the other day, visiting the exhibition on Peruvian art and culture, I was intrigued with this 18th century (Cuzco School) painting of Mary. The painting owes a great deal to European traditions – both artistic and religious/cultural – and to some extent represents the effort to convert Inca peoples to Christianity. There is, then, much that is ambiguous about it. Yet there is also much that is interesting and hopeful about it.

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The image casts Mary as a child weaving, with traditional indigenous weaving materials. This owes to two things: a tradition from the (non-canonical) gospel Pseudo-Matthew which represents a young Mary as spending her time weaving from the 3rd to the 9th hour; and, the tradition of weaving that was common among the indigenous peoples. The painting represented an attempt to both valorize the everyday activity of weaving and to draw a link between Christian spirituality and the indigenous women of Peru. Thus we have the following detail from a painting of the (later)  indiginismo movement in Peru, which shows women with similar spinning materials.

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Aside from hesitations on questions of Mariology (and on the elevation of cloistered life, where weaving was done) and also acknowledging the colonialist heritage represented in the first painting, there is nevertheless a very real valorization of the tasks and vocations of everyday life as these are given by the God of creation/covenant and as they are experienced/lived in the Spirit. There is an effort to take seriously the life and experiences of those to whom the gospel is being related. The gospel of Jesus Christ encounters the culture, valorizes aspects of it, and insists that here the Spirit of the risen Jesus (of the creator God) is present.

gospel and the gazette

The beginning of a short sermon series – this week, looking at transformation through travel…

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A few decades ago the Swiss theologian Karl Barth offered a suggestion to young seminary students and theologians, a suggestion we are going to take him up on over the next few  weeks. Barth suggested that they read with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other hand.

These two texts represent two worlds? There is the world of the bible, in which the ways and identity of God are opened up for us. The world of the bible, in which ancient human experiences of God are recounted. And then there is the world of the newspaper, in which our contemporary world is described, in which the opinions of our neighbours are offered, in which the preoccupations of our society come to light. Continue reading