February 03, 2017 column
Living Together in Hope
Rev. Yme Woensdregt
(I am grateful for Louise Penny’s blog, which sparked these thoughts, and which also provided some of the language I use.)
Oh dear Lord. Like many of you, my heart has been breaking this week. Six people murdered while at prayer at a mosque in Quebec. Five others critically injured. Our hearts break for them. Sitting peacefully in the safest of places. Our hearts break for their wives, children, parents. Loved ones.
Our hearts break for a world that is so broken. So fractured. In such pain.
Our hearts break for the men and women and children who are homeless. Those who are stranded. The refugees who thought they were finally safe. And accepted.
And then I thought a little more. Canada has a shameful history of this sort of thing. There have been shameful incidents in our past, in our Canadian story.
In 1914, a ship named the Komagata Maru came to the coast of British Columbia, only to be denied and ordered to turn back. The ship carried 376 passengers fleeing British India. They were mostly from Punjab and they were forced to sail back to India because Canada’s government excluded certain ethnic groups, and they were unwanted.
In World War 2, Japanese nationals were interned in camps, right here in the Kootenays.
On the Atlantic coast, Canadian immigration refused to accept any Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. An anonymous immigration agent, when asked how many Jewish refugees would be allowed to enter, responded, “None is too many.” This official policy of Canada from 1933–1948 was memorialized in the “none is too many” memorial in Halifax.
In 1879, a government report proposed setting up Indian Residential Schools. In the words of one survivor, the policy was to “beat the Indian out of us and make us into little copies of white people”. The first school opened in 1883 … and the last one closed a mere 20 years ago in Punnichy SK in 1996.
Since then, the government signed into law the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2007. Last year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission presented a report which laid the groundwork for moving towards reconciliation with our aboriginal brothers and sisters. In the words of Justice Murray Sinclair, it took generations to set this abuse in motion, and it will take generations to undo the damage that was done.
We have lived with the burden of our shame for generations. I trust we have learned from it. I was heartened when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted, “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength.” I can only hope that his words will translate into action.
I saw a brief video online from Denmark a couple of days ago which made the point that it is easy to put people in boxes. “There’s us and there’s them; there are the high earners and those just getting by; there are those we trust and those we try to avoid; there are people from away and those who have always been here; there are people from the countryside and those who have never seen a cow; there are people with whom we share something and those we don’t share anything with ….
“And then there’s us with commonalities beyond our differences. There are those who have been bullied, and those who have bullied others; those of us who are broken hearted and those who are being healed; those of us who are madly in love and we who feel lonely; those of us who are bisexual and we who are not; those of us who welcome change and we who are afraid of it. Above all, there are simply those of us who love life.”
I believe that all of us, regardless of our creed or race, our gender or social standing, seek a wholeness in which we live together in peace and hope. Desmond Tutu wrote that “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”
We need, now more than ever, to be people who practice the hard work of hope. I don’t mean simple optimism, or the sense that everything is going to work out fine in the end. I mean hope—the hard work of being people who will speak out against hatred and prejudice, of being people who will speak words of compassion and grace, of being people who take a stand regardless of the cost against anyone who seeks to bully or demean or belittle others.
Premier Philippe Couillard of Quebec was absolutely right when he said that words have power. We can use words to break down. We can use words to lift up.
We need to grow. We need to grow together. We need to welcome those who are different and be open to those who differ from us. We need to become people who speak words of healing and justice.
Because at our heart, we are all human beings, rooted in creation, bound together. We all breathe the same air, drink the same water, marvel at the same beauty. We all seek to find a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives.