The last few days have been full of expressions of patriotism and anti-patriotism. Canada’s 150th birthday was on Saturday. Today, obviously, is the big day for our American neighbours. The internet is, predictably, aflame with either nationalistic chest-thumping or withering criticisms thereof. There is, of course, plenty to be critical of. Canada continues to come to terms with and be confronted by its treatment of indigenous people, historically right down to the present. The USA struggles with all things Donald Trump and his “America First” agenda that seems content to kick a whole bunch of people to the curb. I suspect that no matter the insignia on our passport, many of us feel at least a little bit conflicted when it comes to waving the flag. And if we don’t, we should. Especially if we are Christians. As followers of Jesus, our national identities ought always to be worn loosely given our primary convictions and commitments to Christ and to his kingdom.
At any rate, the older I get the more I am drawn away from noisy proclamations and angry crowds and toward smaller, simpler stories. Legislation and rallies and article and protests are fine, I guess, but I need a human face, a life, a story. I need a real flesh and blood human being to save me from the abstractions and assumptions that come so naturally to me.
I was walking my dog on Sunday night in the small prairie town I live in. I rounded a corner and I came across an older Vietnamese man. I hadn’t seen him for years, but I recognized his face instantly. The church I grew up in sponsored his family to come to Canada back in the 1980’s in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. I remember when they arrived, these strange Asian faces amidst a sea of white Mennonites. I remember this man bowing endlessly in grateful deference. I remember him shoveling the sidewalks of our church, checking on the building at night, showing up to worship. I remember his kids who were superachievers and who are probably neuroscientists somewhere by now. I remember this quiet, decent Vietnamese family who made a new life for themselves in small town Canada.
He smiled at me as we approached each other. I’m not sure if he remembered me, too—I was only a kid when they arrived—but he had a kind word and a broad smile for me. We didn’t chat long, but it was good to see him again, after all these decades. Later, when I rounded the block for home I saw him in the driveway of an older single Mennonite gentleman that lives not far from me and who attended the church I grew up in. There was also a young adult from the same church who had dropped by and seemed to be showing his motorcycle off. There the three of them stood: a sixty-something year old Mennonite bachelor, a twenty-something year old motorcycle enthusiast, and this Vietnamese man, chatting away on a warm summer evening. There was nothing really remarkable about the scene, to most eyes. But it was remarkable to me. It was a symbol of what is possible in a place like Canada and what is possible when the church opens wide its arms and embraces the stranger.
I thought of this ordinary scene for the rest of the evening. It made me glad to live in Canada. This country is not perfect. I know this very well. I have two indigenous kids whose lives will always be affected in some way or another by the history their ancestors have endured at the hands of the Canadian government and realities that persist to the present. I married into a Japanese family who know very what it is to be mistreated by this nation. Canada, like pretty much every other nation under the sun has skeletons in its closet, and has reconciliation and justice work to do going forward.
But it is a good place to call home. It is a place where simple stories like the one I encountered on an ordinary summer Sunday evening are possible. And I’m grateful for it.