I live in a “brown town” — which is acceptable lingo in the 905 ring around Toronto. It means our children find it jarring to be where almost everyone is white. Where we live, even second-generation Canadians like myself feel like old landed gentry. The South Asian kids call themselves brown. The kids whose parents came from Hong Kong or mainland China call themselves Asian. The Caribbean kids call themselves black, and the Africans are proudly African — until the kids start high school and then they’re black, too.
Our kids grew up under excruciating peer pressure because their friends’ parents expected hours of homework every night, excellence at piano, part-time work and no dating until, in some cases, marriage.
Our children’s generation doesn’t understand the concept of ethnic ministries. They think being white is an ethnicity. Outside of family, their faith shapers have been black and Asian — honest people who love Jesus and would max out their credit cards to pay the rent of an unemployed brother or sister in the faith. Their moral standards may look steep, but if a boy gets in trouble with the law or a girl gets pregnant, the community is with them in every practical way.
Against that backdrop, I’ve had three unsettling United Church experiences in recent weeks. The first was a conversation with a layperson who served on her church Board for about 10 years. Describing her suburban church, she said, “Our church is dwindling away, but we can’t get new people. There’s nobody living in the community anymore.” I know the subdivision surrounding her church. As soon as one of the lovely middle-income houses goes on the market, it is sold — to somebody.
The second was at a meeting where one of my colleagues spoke. She described an aging and dwindling urban United Church in a redeveloping neighbourhood, and acknowledged that the Christian presence in that community was growing with little mom-and-pop Caribbean churches, the kind with names so long they scroll along the entire length of the church bus. The response from our gang was, “We don’t associate with them because their theology is 180 degrees from the United Church.”
The third was a chance comment from one of our folks who had been in conversation with the General Council. The gist was that our “ethnic people” weren’t on board with issues around sexuality and needed to be properly educated into a United Church way of thought.
Now all of this makes sense if we United Church people are the apex of Christian thought and development, a light to the nations, a standard to which persons of other faiths and races must be raised. But it plays in this brown town like cultural imperialism.
Where I hang out, most of the Asians and Caribbeans, and certainly all of the Africans, are university educated or making sure their children are. A surprising number are open to connecting to a community of faith, and many are looking for ways to connect beyond their ethnic enclave.
In the season of Lent, we celebrate the journey to a cross that collapsed one of the greatest empires of this world and is still shaking ours. The man on the cross was neither white nor United Church of Canada. Why would it make a difference?
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