The Reverend Mark DeWolfe Sermon


September 13, 1987

There’ s a curious Unitarian Universalist custom which is in danger of dying, and for once, that’ s not bad news. Our habit of closing all but our largest churches in the summer is in danger of extinction. More and more of our congregations, this one included, are programming during July and August. I applaud this because, as a professional religious leader, I think religion is serious enough to merit year-round attention. And I think our religious communities are important enough not to allow them to enter a coma for two months of every year.

Another custom endangered by our summer activity is the celebration of the first Sunday after Labour Day as either “Homecoming” or “Ingathering” Sunday. When the church closes for two months and no one sees anyone else, the reunion theme is appropriate. It is less appropriate when the church’s programs only really slowed down some during July and August. Perhaps this Sunday will be known in the future not as “Homecoming”, not as “Ingathering”, but “Acceleration Sunday”, the day when church activities rev up for a new year. For in fact that is what is happening. Some of us did travel this summer and are now coming home. Some of us did take the summer off from church life and are now gathered in again. But the church itself did not close this year: it was here al l along, only a little more scattered than usual, some of us occupied with cottages and voyages, some with the provincial election, some with mowing lawns, but some, still keeping the heartbeat of the congregation going. If you have any doubts about this, check out Margaret Holland’s valedictory poem in the last newsletter. There was much going on among us all summer long.

So perhaps in the future we will not celebrate this as “Homecoming, or Ingathering” Sunday. Therefore I am taking this opportunity to speak on homecoming it may be my last! For homecoming is a central spiritual theme, one without another holiday on which a preacher can hang it. A sense of homelessness — —a sense of not belonging in the time and place where we find ourselves —— is, perhaps, the central spiritual malaise of our time, and it is the job of the religious community to address such dis—ease. How do we come to feel at home in a world which more people are uprooted everyday?

Very few of the members of this congregation live in the communities where they were born. Some do, but they are a minority. Most of us have moved, many of us several times. The moves have not been from one house to another in the same town, but often across continents, oceans, from one province to another, from one country to another. Even among those who live in the community where they were born, many have returned there after time in stranger places.   The late twentieth century has made transplants of most of us.

Many people feel out of place where they find themselves. hear often of people who long for another place, who wish Toronto was New York or Los Angeles, or some quiet village of long ago. They live with a nostalgia for some place or some time other than where they are. Nostalgia: it comes from nostos, meaning a return home, and algos, meaning pain so, nostalgia: a pain for returning home, to another place, another time, a longing to be somewhere else.

There can be good nostalgia: because our present situations can be filled with pain, and a longing to be out of that pain is healthy. When black slaves sang about their home in another kingdom, they were investing themselves in an identity which told the slave owners that they didn’t really own the souls of their slaves. That piece of spiritual survival allowed Harriet Tubman, the woman they called Moses, to lead them through the “underground railroad” to new homes in free states and Canada, to a place that might be their real home, where they could be at home as full human beings or at least, so they dreamed. Nostalgia is painful, but it can be the kind of pain which tells us to do something for our health.

There can be a negative nostalgia, too: a refusal to deal creatively with the situation one is in by remaining locked in a dream of the past. I had a shocking experience this summer which reminded me that a kind of nostalgia is a longing for an older, simpler world, which probably never existed. While in the U. S. for my brother’s wedding, several people asked me if French were still a problem, by which they meant to ask if the French Canadians were still threatening to secede. 1 replied, truthfully at the time, that Quebec separation was a dead issue, and that language issues were not a large concern. Then I came home to an election call, and a Conservative campaign which raised the fear of Ontario’ s becoming officially bilingual  .believe we have nothing to fear from official bilingualism, and if the new government were to institute it today, I cannot see how it would change life for Ontario’ s anglophones. I continue to fail to understand why some people fear “having French crammed down their throats”. If one would need to be bilingual for certain job promotions, it is a skill which the government is right to reward with promotion. Yet there are people who fear bilingualism, and their fear causes reactions which are emotional, not logical; their fear is based on a nostalgia, a longing for a past which never really existed except in their self-concepts : a past in which Ontario was uniformly English (which it never was) , in which the Orange Lodge defended us against incursions by French Catholics, in which our blessed British identity was protected with all the privileges its imperialistic connections brought with it.

Another example of unhealthy nostalgia: the cities are full of people who long for the country, and the country for people who long for the cities. Until they are ready to move to where they would be happy, their nostalgia gives them pain. Many do choose to move: my brother and his wife gave up urban life in Cleveland to move to Vermont; but they left behind people who hate Cleveland and but cannot leave it, and found in Vermont people who hate Vermont and cannot leave it. Moving has its price: the leaving of the familiar and the embracing of the strange. It has its risks: the new world may glimmer more brightly in dreams and longings; in reality it may well tarnish or grow dull. Sometimes a subconscious suspicion of disappointment will prevent us from risking making dreams come true.

Nostalgia can mean being out of place where you find yourself, and sometimes this works to further human dignity, and sometimes it works to demean it. Sometimes it is healthy to long for another place, sometimes it is unhealthy.

In San Francisco, my Japanese language teacher explained how she could never live in Japan again because she was too assertive a woman: she could not fit the role expected of her in her native land. I worked for a while in Japanese restaurant. The owner had trained as an architect in Japan but left because he longed for a country less bound by cultural tradition. Our dishwasher, Bounmy, was Laotian, and had been a professor of mathematics in a university at Vientiane. He had bought passage on a boat out of Laos for his pregnant wife; there being no room for him, he swam the Mekong river to Thailand where he was reunited with his wife in a refugee camp. Their son was born there, and a few months later they were accepted for settlement in the United States. Bounmy’s day began at 7:00 a.m. when he left home for morning English classes; he retured home at noon to care for the child while his wife attended afternoon classes. He came to the restaurant at 5:00 and worked until midnight. He never spoke of a longing to return home; if he felt it, I never knew. But he was adapting to where circumstances had brought him: learning to be at home in San Francisco, as both my Japanese language teacher and Japanese boss had done. They were still rooted in the lands of their births, but they were sprouting and blooming in the land where they were transplanted.

Refugees choose relocation over death; usually this death is physical; sometimes it is spiritual. On the West Coast frequently met people who had moved there in order to live the lifestyle 1  These people thought of themselves as refugees, thinking they could not live as they liked in Cleveland, or Toronto, and they felt they could never return. in fact, there are people living their lifestyle, and happily, in the places they are from; what they gain from moving West is a place where more people live that lifestyle. What has bothered me about people who think you can only be a vegetarian, or a yogi, or an advocate of the Human Potential Movement on the West Coast is how unfree they are. They aren’t free to move eastward, and what holds them in is the sense that they are only free to be who they are on the West Coast!   They are imprisoned by their unwillingness to be at home in the places they had come from, to pay the price of creating space for themselves there, imprisoned by their need to be someplace where lots of people are like them.

In my own wanderings I have I lived in three different countries, and four different regions of the U. S. (Some would claim that New England, Texas, Missouri and California are different enough to be thought of as different countries.) In each one I have, while I lived there, felt myself to be at home. Each one, when visited after I left it, felt familiar but no longer home. Now, after six years of living in Canada, the United States feels foreign to me; familiar, but foreign. New England feels like the place I am from but no longer like the place where I am at home. California is a pleasant place where I once lived, but no longer home.

Last weekend Jim and I were houseboating with friends on the Trent-Severn waterway. From our cottage dock we had often made fun of these “floating Winnebago’s” and I shall confess that having now experienced a weekend on a houseboat I am converted they are not the source of all evil ; in fact, they can be downright pleasant. As we sailed through the lakes, rivers and canals of central Ontario, I felt so much at home: the kinds of trees, rocks, birds; the beavers, blue herons and loons we saw were part of country where I feel now I like I belong . Monday we tried to avoid the traffic by driving down the back roads rather than the major highways and again, looking over the rolling hills of York Region, the farms interrupted by provincial reforestation projects, there arose within me a deep seated feeling of being at home. From a rise on Weston Road where I could sense the city coming closer, I felt my position in this land between the Great Lakes, this land of granite rock and shimmering water, of farms and cities surrounded by water and knew this was home.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the number of American immigrants to Canada has always been large, but compared to immigrants from other countries, relatively few Americans take out Canadian citizenship. The Encyclopedia asserts that most Americans who settle here see it as a temporary posting and expect to return home someday. The U.S., it seems, remains their home, and they remain sojourners who are just here for a while: they never truly put down roots in the soil of this country. This has not been the case for me. When I go to the U.S., it is to a land which has become. foreign to me. When I return to Canada, it is with a sigh of relief, with a gladness to be home. I intend to spend the balance of my life here, for it is here I am at home. So it makes sense that I should take the oath of Canadian citizenship and become, in the words of the Ministry of the Secretary of State, “fully a member of the Canadian family. “Home is where the heart is”, goes the proverb. The pain of nostalgia comes from having your heart someplace other than where the rest of you is. It is a skill to adapt to new circumstances, to find the way of being at home in a new country, whether defined by national borders or by language or by a vaguer sense of difference. Some never learn that skill and remain exiles all their lives, even if they have never moved from house in which they were born. Others learn to carry home in their hearts and to find a space for themselves wherever they are.

This summer I took the Oath of Canadian Citizenship. To do so I had to learn the seven duties of a Canadian Citizen. All the native—born Canadians I spoke to were unable to name a single duty, yet we naturalized Canadians are expected to be able to name all seven. They are:

-— to be loyal to Canada;

—— to be loyal to the Queen of Canada and her representatives;

—- to obey Canada’s laws;

— to respect the rights of others

—- to respect private and public property;

–to care for Canada’ s heritage; and

— to support Canada’s ideals.

Canadians who were born here are generally ignorant of their duties as citizens, and it is to our country’ s detriment that an understanding of civic responsibility is not more widespread. In the week I took the oath, in which I pledged to obey Canada’ s laws, care for Canada’s heritage and support Canada’s ideals, the federal government moved to make it very difficult for me to do those three. In fact, I believe there aren’t enough new Canadians in the federal government, because they clearly haven’t been thinking about Canada’s heritage or Canada’s ideals when they’ve been making Canada’s laws.

One of the major elements of Canada’s heritage is the Loyalist tradition. The losing side in the American Revolution, the Loyalists were tortured in the U.S., their property confiscated, their businesses closed, their franchise removed. Most Americans don’ t know that their “founding fathers, ” after fighting to free themselves from British persecution, persecuted the remaining Loyalists and made refugees of them! So many elements in the Canadian mosaic are refugees who came here fleeing persecution: the Scots from the Highland Clearances, the Acadians returning to I and from which they were uprooted, the Quebecois learning to live under a foreign empire, Ukrainians fleeing a Russian—imposed famine. Empathy toward those fleeing persecution is both a Canadian ideal and a part of Canada’s heritage one that Canada has ignored too often and to her eternal shame.

And the federal government would have us ignore it one more time. Fanning the flames of racism in this country, they offer claimants’ which the government has done its best to create in the first place. The government would have us believe that Canada is in danger of being overrun by economic migrants, people who claim refugee status but are not entitled to it. To offend our traditional Canadian sense of fair play and love of proper procedure, the government paints these people as “queue jumpers”.

So to prevent further abuse of our immigration system, they bring in draconian measures to empower the minister of immigration to act unilaterally to suspend basic legal rights of people who are simply suspected of being illegitimate claimants to the privileges of refugees.

The government is right to try to stop people from profiteering from human suffering. Yet the measures proposed would make it illegal for humanitarian and religious groups, the largest sponsors of legitimate refugees, to assist people in gaining entry to Canada. They would effectively close our borders to people who could not apply from outside the country, in other words, to people who are in fear of their lives and who would be in danger if they waited the six months to a year that a normal immigrant application takes.

The hypocrisy of the government is clear. The same month in which they are appalled that 172 Sikhs and Tamils (who have dark skins) come ashore in Nova Scotia, they welcome bravely four Bulgarian wrestlers who decide to defect while at a tournament in Burnaby, B.C. ana who not incidentally have white skins.

Canadian government is sadly emulating the U.S., again: welcoming people who are fleeing governments with which we disagree, ignoring those who flee violent conflicts which are harder for us to understand, based as they are in histories distant in time and place from us.

As Yvonne Greig pointed out in her letter to the Toronto Star, Canadian Unitarian Universalists have been able to be proud that our country has welcomed refugees from Salvador and Guatemala, while the U.S. has forced churches who wish to help those fleeing U. S. -supported Central American governments to break the law, to offer symbolic sanctuary and support in a 1980’s version of Harriet Tubman’s underground railroad. Our churches have been able to operate within the law; Bill C —84 makes that no longer possible. It confuses profiteering with humanitarianism; it shames me to think that our government cannot tell the difference between the two.

The government has, by the admission of one of its own senior civil servants, distorted the facts to mislead the public. The government has claimed that 90% of all refugee claimants prove to be bogus. This is not true! For a period last year, the government decided to process only those applications from countries which are not considered to be producing genuine refugees: Turkey, Brazil and Portugal chief among them. It was in that period that 90% of claims from countries not expected to produce refugees proved to be bogus. Which makes you wonder about that other 10%. If 10% of claims from non-refugee producing countries prove to be genuine refugees, the world is a far crueller place than we believed!

The government would have us believe that most of these false refugee claimants are economic migrants, coming to Canada only to better themselves financially and therefore not eligible for refugee status. It does not occur to the government, it seems to ask itself why they are trying to jump the queue.

I can tell them: the Canadian immigration system is inefficient, its review processes are archaic, its definitions of eligibility are parochial. I know: I went through it six years ago. Even though I was in a category considered automatically admissible, exempt from most of the bureaucratic screens, it still took the system six months to approve my application! And even if my case were not a good example, it is cause to wonder why, with so many people wanting to come to Canada, last year we did not admit the full number of immigrants this government set as a goal? The system is keeping people out of Canada who want to be here, and whom the government claims it wants to admit. Even if the government could make a case for “queue jumpers” which it can in the case of 90% of refugee claimants from non-refugee producing countries immigrants are finding this “nation of immigrants” oddly inaccessible.

We live, now, in a migratory world, where people are relocating at a ferocious pace. Many move for personal choice; many move for economic necessity; some move to preserve their lives and the lives of their families. Such people have a hard time, but they adapt, and in the words of the Ministry of the Secretary of State in their literature on Canadian Citizenship, become “truly a member of the Canadian family.” The Secretary of State also points out that Canada has two official languages but no official culture — and that the duties of citizenship require sharing our cultures with each other, learning from each other. In a world where so many are homeless, it is the humane country which offers open doors to the hurting of the world.

Our congregation’ s experience as a sponsor of refugees -has taught us that relocating isn’t easy; cultural shocks come early and late. But our experience and that of other congregations like ours is that refugees ultimately make superior citizens : their motivation to adapt and contribute is great, and while there are some failures, they are fewer than among non-refugee migrants. In part this is because the people who become refugees are the ones with the will to move on rather than suffer, the intelligence to get themselves here over many miles, and often the intelligence to be opposed to oppressive regimes !

There are people who want to be at home here. We can offer them empathy because we too have been dislocated. We too know what it is like to leave the familiar behind and cross over to new and unknown places. We too have made the spiritual journey out of exile and into homecoming.

Welcome home to all who have those who stayed behind. The work to build that world, where all can ourselves to the dream of a world journeyed; welcome home to of this religious society is be at home. Let us recommit where all are at home, not displaced, not in pain, not cut off from nurture and growth by bigotry, fear, or the power games of others. So may it be, and may it soon come to pass.

Reverend Mark DeWolfe

Thank you!

Kathy, Judy, Joan, Bert, Camille, Tisa, Susan, Anthony, Fiona.
Without your help, this work would not have been possible.

Brigitte Twomey