A funny thing happened after church on Sunday. One of our church members politely pulled me away from another conversation with the news that, “There are some visitors that want to talk to you.” I’m a little weary after the service at the best of times, but this past Sunday was even worse. I was coasting on fumes having just arrived home from Europe a day before and having been up for approximately eight hours by the time the service rolled around. My head was aching and my eyes were heavy. So it took a bit of effort to summon my best pastor smile and introduce myself to the beaming thirty-something year old couple that stood before me.
“So where are you from?” I began. I was anticipating little more than the usual harmless church foyer small-talk with newcomers that many of us are familiar with. I may even have been hoping for it. But what came out next caught me completely off guard. “Well, we’re from Texas and we saw the piece that CNN did earlier this year on your church and city’s reponse to the Syrian refugee crisis. We wanted to come up here and see it for ourselves and to see if y’all could use some help.” I blinked uncomprehendingly. “So, you’re just on a holiday up here and stopped in?” I thought maybe they were en route to Banff or Jasper or some other more touristy stop. “No, we just came to Lethbridge. We’re going back to Texas tomorrow. We just had to see this place for ourselves. We love Canada. We think what y’all are doing is just amazing. And we think we might want to be part of it. We’re thinking of moving up here.”
I rubbed my eyes. “So you came all the way to southern Alberta from Texas because of a CNN article?” They smiled. “Yup. We just really feel like God wants us to be part of something like this. We’re not real happy with what’s going on in our nation right now.” I hadn’t a clue what to say. We exchanged contact information and promised to stay in touch. I have no idea if I will see them again, but I wouldn’t rule it out. The longer I do this pastor thing, the more I learn that it’s not wise to rule things out. God seems to work in far stranger ways than I’m often prepared to allow.
I’ve been thinking about this conversation over the past two days. I thought about how the response to the Syrian refugee crisis dominated the life of our church and my own life for months on end and about the bewildering media attention our little story received. I thought about the thrill of welcoming the families our church was a part of sponsoring to Canada, about the relationships we have formed with them and others along the way. I thought about how the kids had just begun their first full year of school, how the parents were learning English and taking steps toward employment and greater independence. I thought about how we are continuing to walk the journey of trying to welcome the stranger and help them integrate into this country of ours called Canada.
But I also thought about one comment from my new Texan friends. “We love Canada.” I wondered how much they actually knew about Canada. I wondered if they realized that things are rarely as rosy as we might imagine them to be based on an article or two. I wondered if they knew that things aren’t perfect here—that there are those whose attitudes toward refugees would be just as inflexible as those in their own state that they were so eager to escape, that there are integration stories in Canada that are hard and messy, that there will likely be unanticipated challenges down the road. That it can actually be really hard, if profoundly rewarding work to learn how to live together with real difference.
Last week, a politician in Ottawa proposed that all prospective immigrants to Canada be screened for “anti-Canadian values.” An interesting idea, that one. Who decides, after all, what counts as a “Canadian value?” The usual suspects have been trotted out by commentators. Tolerance, diversity, democracy, freedom, compassion. But of course each of these have limits, even if they are poorly understood and often go unacknowledged. Do we value being tolerant of intolerance? Is all diversity worthy of celebration (I come across very few breathless affirmations of the contribution to our mosaic of diversity that is made by polygamy, for example)? And concepts like democracy and freedom obviously come with limits embedded within them. We’re not free to be abusive and offensive to others, after all. Indeed, we often can’t even agree on what counts as abusive or offensive any more.
And what about when some Canadians have values that clash with others? Which Canadian values trump the other ones? Which ones need to be screened out? Are we looking for a bunch of well-manicured, well-behaved Justin Trudeaus with beaming smiles and armloads of platitudes? Are we looking for Tim Hortons (or Molson Canadian) guzzling hockey fans? People who have good manners and like hiking and rugged climates? People who think every culture is generally awesome as long as they don’t believe anything too strongly or take anything too seriously?
I wonder how many of us who were born in this land would pass a screening for “anti-Canadian values.” I wonder if I would. I wonder if my new Syrian friends would. I’ve only known them for seven months, but I’m quite certain that they hold at least a few beliefs that would be fairly unpopular with the intelligentsia of our nation. I know this is the case for many immigrant populations. It’s a tricky thing, talking about anything resembling collective values these days. There don’t seem to be many left, and we have a hard time defining and explaining the few that remain.
My sermon on Sunday had focused on the new heaven and new earth of Revelation 21, this marvelous vision of peace and comfort and judgment and healing and the flourishing of all creation that Christians believe is pulling history along. It is a hopeful vision that has formed the scaffolding and structure of my deepest values for as long as I can remember. It is a vision that for me transcends anything like “Canadian values,” even if there is obvious overlap. I suspect my new Texan friends would say something similar, even thought it turns out that they are Mormons. So there would still be a difference or two when it comes to how we understand and articulate what we value and why and how we might share in common projects.
I suspect there’s no getting away from it. Our values just refuse to line up and behave as they ought to. They shift and morph and evolve and grow and mature and regress. We explain and understand them differently at different points in our lives. This is just who we are and how we think and act. At our best, however, we can create political spaces to be honest about all this and to have substantive conversation not only about what we value but about what we ought to value and why. This will be essential going forward in our world, whether in Canada, the USA or any other place that is seeking to live well with difference.