My mother was 10 when her family moved from south-east Manitoba to south-west Saskatchewan. Whenever she talked about that move she would say “The thing I missed was seeing the tees and the Indians.”
It wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I asked the obvious question: “Mon, I get the part about the trees, but what’s this about the Indians?”
“Well, whenever Indians travelled through our area, they would stop at our place for a rest and a drink of water.”
My grandfather was a Plautdietsch speaking Sommerfelder Mennonite, not very prosperous, blind, and the father of 14 children, of which my mother was number 6. Apparently he was blind in more ways than one.
Before he married, he had worked at Letellier, Manitoba. One of his coworkers was a black man who had made his way to Canada from the US South. My grandfather learned some old negro spirituals from him and then taught them to his children. My mother used to sing some of them.
My grandfather learned English while working there, and later said he wished he had learned French, too, as there were French-speaking people living there. Whenever my mother told about her father’s wish that he had learned French, she would add, “And if he had, I would have, too!”
I heard those little things when my mother talked about her earlier years. They made a lasting impression, and I believe enabled me to look at other people as being not a lot different from me.
In her late teens, my mother memorized the German catechism, and the bishop baptized her. I think the teachings in that catechism found a place deeper than just in her mind. The family spoke mostly Plautdietsch at home, and some English. The church was entirely German — Bible reading, hymns, sermons, prayers. My mother was the last of the children to learn German. As she grew older, she realized that in her church the language was more important than the teachings in the catechism; it had nothing to offer her 8 younger siblings who did not know German.
She left that church and expressed no nostalgia for it. Her mother, my grandmother, appeared to believe that I needed to learn German to be a Christian. She sent me a copy of the catechism and a German primer. I was curious and made a beginning in the primer. Mom would help me whenever I asked, but never prompted me to keep on trying to learn German. She had a large English dictionary that she had studied for years, learned to speak English with no trace of an accent, had a larger vocabulary than many whose mother tongue was English.
When Chris and I started to attend the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, some members got all excited when they found that Mom’s mother tongue had been Plautdietsch. She was polite and friendly, but did not share their enthusiasm. I have wondered if she didn’t have a little fear that I was getting into the sort of thing she had left behind.
I am my mother’s son. She said nothing negative about anyone, but the impression she left was that Plautdietsch and German had nothing to do with being a Christian and were not anything I needed to pursue.
My father was from the USA, his mother was Franco-American and it embarrassed him when she spoke French to their neighbours here in Saskatchewan. I got a lot more encouragement from my mother to learn French than from my father.
That’s my personal history. I could say more about my father, but I don’t think it’s necessary. I’ll just say that my mother’s positive remarks about others had more influence on me than my father’s negative remarks.
Are there negative things that Christians say today that can have a harmful effect on their children’s attitude toward others?
How do we look at ourselves?
We can’t change our ethnic identity, or the family into which we were born. But if we think that our family, or our ethnic group, has some innate quality that makes us more apt to be Christian, or a better Christian, than others, we are contradicting the whole message of the New Testament. Any hint of pride or exclusivity undermines our gospel witness..
How do we look at others?
Sometimes I hear Christians say that the people around us aren’t interested in the gospel. That implants the thought in the younger generation that there is no point in trying to share the gospel in our home communities.
How do we talk about people of a different skin colour, or who speak with an accent? Nigger, negro, darkie and coloured are not polite or respectful terms to use for black people. Sometimes we complain about the immigrants in our communities. It enthuses us to send missionaries to the countries they came from, but when they arrive here, we have a different attitude.
There is no 8 step program to break the problem I am describing. It’s a matter of the heart. Little changes in our attitudes toward the surrounding people, little changes in our speech, could add up to a big change in the way others see us.