Paul Douglas Walfall writes that if we are to claim diversity, we need to challenge our assumptions about who and what is normative in Canada and in the church.
One of the first lectures I remember from my first year in university was about change. The lecturer pointed out that our starting point cannot be if we like or dislike what was said or done. He emphasized that we needed to consider the assumptions which undergird the issue; it is only when we are willing to challenge the assumptions that real change will occur. As we come into September, I find myself asking about the assumptions we make in Canada and in The United Church of Canada.
The recent discussions about immigration have led me to ask the question, “When we say ‘Canadian’, what is the assumption that we are making?”
Too often the impression I get is that when I hear “Canadian,” the person being assumed is a White person. This is unfortunate, as Canada was the first country in the world to declare itself to be a multicultural nation. In making that statement, diversity was being lifted up and the acknowledgement that each ethnic and cultural expression has space to be expressed and acknowledged in Canada.
The recent public discourse, however, too easily gave the impression that those who were not willing to fit in and assimilate into the dominant White culture were not accepted here. Could it be that we have forgotten the European colonizers were immigrants into this country? In one way or another, except for the Indigenous peoples, all others are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants into this country.
Could it be that we have forgotten that the history of assimilation has caused far too much hurt and misery in this country? Assimilation has no place within an understanding of multiculturalism. We need to intentionally change the assumption about who is Canadian if we are to claim diversity.
But what is the assumption that is made about the normative member of The United Church of Canada? Truthfully, it seems that the assumption is that the normative member of The United Church of Canada is a White, Anglo-Saxon, heterosexual person. It is with that assumption that immigrants coming in the church, like me, often times get the feeling that we have to work hard to be accepted and affirmed within the church.
I noted initially after arriving here that I sought to assimilate into the ways of thinking and doing. In doing so, I had to hide my authentic cultural self in the fear that my true self would not be accepted. Sometimes when I have allowed my true cultural self to come forward it was hit down by criticism, ostracism, and rejection. I recall one Good Friday a member of a choir gave me a thorough “tongue lashing” because I had included the Lord’s Prayer to be sung to the Caribbean tune in the order of service. I was told it was inappropriate for the occasion and “that is not how we do it in that place.” At times it felt that everything would be OK so long as I did not mention that I was a Black person from the Caribbean.
In these experiences, the lesson was that I had better assimilate to the ways of doing things or face endless complaints to the M&P Committee. I have since reminded myself that I can only be myself. The United Church of Canada has accepted the vision to become an intercultural church. Assimilation has no place within an intercultural vision. Somehow, we need to change the assumption about the normative United Church of Canada member to one of diversity.
On January 1, 2019, the greatest changes to our church structures since church union in 1925 occurred. While we changed structures and systems, we can forget that there were many assumptions and ways of being which upheld the old structures. The challenge that now faces us, it seems to me, is to look again at some of the assumptions we have been making about being church. Some of those assumptions may be not suited for today and may well be some of the reasons which have retarded the growth of the church in our present time. It may well be that until we address these assumptions, we would have changed structures only to find that we are doing the same old things in new systems. If that is so, then we run a real risk of still doing Presbytery and Conference but this time calling it Office of Vocation and Regional Council.
“We are called to be the church” (A New Creed). God has not called us to be a successful church. God has called us to be a faithful church! To be faithful we will, at times, have to call the nation to rethink the assumptions that are being made. Yet we are also faithful to our calling when we are willing to question our own assumptions, challenge ourselves, and change assumptions when we see that old assumptions are out of step with God.
To be faithful then means that we put aside the assumptions that are out of step with God. May we be faithful to our calling to be the church.
—Rev. Dr. Paul Douglas Walfall is the minister of the Fort Saskatchewan Community of Faith in the Northern Spirit Regional Council.