Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Strangers in Our Midst

I live a few blocks from Cobourg’s Victoria Park, right on Lake Ontario. Every weekend this park is full of new Canadian picnickers. I can’t be sure, of course, but as I walk through the park, I think I’m seeing immigrants from Pakistan, Jamaica, The Philippines, and beyond. I’m glad to see them. Partly, it is for purely selfish reasons. These new Canadians, most of whom are young, are the same Canadians who will be contributing to my Canada Pension Plan when I retire. If Canadians had relied only on Canadian-born to make those contributions, there wouldn’t be enough to go around!

But I’m especially glad to see them because they remind me of my own family history. Nearly sixty years ago, my parents immigrated to Canada too, from the Netherlands. On Saturday afternoons, my family and our Dutch-immigrant friends in the Niagara Peninsula used to take over huge swaths of parkland in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Now I wonder if the people who lived in that village complained about our barbecues, cars, noise, and garbage. 

Further back, my ancestors immigrated to the Netherlands from Germany, France, and Switzerland. I immigrated--for nearly twenty years--to the United States. It is the human way, I suppose. We’re all immigrants or the children of immigrants.

No nation or group has ever been able to claim any patch of the earth as their own, forever and ever. Roman legions retreated before the barbarian--European--tribes that swept into their empire fifteen hundred years ago. Europeans shoved America’s first citizens aside to take over the Americas. These days hungry Somalis trudge to Kenya, Mexicans try to scale the border fence into the United States, and people from all over the world look for a better life here in Canada, just as my grandparents did after war had ravaged their homeland.

In a way, all this moving back and forth across the face of the earth is perfectly understandable from a Christian point of view. Christians believe that ultimately, no land can really be said to be ours alone because it is all a trust from God. We’re just workers in the vineyard. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). According to the Bible, Christians, in particular, are strangers and aliens to the world (1 Peter 2:11) who are actually ambassadors of reconciliation sent here from the Kingdom of God (2 Cor 5:20).  

Unfortunately, most of us, including Christians, nevertheless struggle with prejudice. We forget where we’re from and what our lives are supposed to be all about. We’re unsure, perhaps even afraid, of those who look and sound different than us. We are impatient for newcomers to lose their distinctives and become just like us. We blame strangers for upsetting our apple carts. 

Borders may be a pragmatic way of regulating the flow of people back and forth over the earth for the benefit of all. But Christian hospitality, kindness to strangers, and forbearance in the face of what seems to us to be odd habits and dress--Christian love for neighbors--all these are God’s way for making sure that immigrants to Canada find a new home away from home.

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