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Around the Kitchen Table

Larraine Ratzlaff

01/27/2016

The Sufi poet Rumi writes, “What is praised is one, so the praise is one too, /many jugs being poured into a huge basin. /All religions, all this singing, one song. /The differences are just illusion and vanity. /Sunlight looks a little different on this wall than it does on that wall /and a lot different on this other one, /but it is still one light.”

Recently my Facebook community exposed its true self when posts started appearing in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Shockingly, many people felt free to make bigoted and generally hateful comments about the plight and the future of the Syrians who were fleeing their homeland. I was appalled to note that many of the most egregious and unapologetic comments came from so-called Christians, defending “our” Canadian way of life. As a white Christian Canadian, I felt the need to take issue with them and to do some un-friending. Many Canadians were genuinely interested in helping or supporting Syrian and other refugees, but the unabashed Christian opposition was distressing.

Since I was 10 or 11, I believed that if my religion stopped me from having a relationship with someone, there was something wrong with the religion — not with me. I also thought about why religious people were often the first to create thicker walls to protect their fixed view of life, and how, from behind those walls, their prejudices and fears festered, thwarting their potential for awareness and understanding. Around me the dominant voices at church, at school, and in the community proclaimed that some people belonged and others didn’t. (I am not referring to extremists; I mean those who fervently defend the status quo.) As the years passed, the rhetoric of the status quo changed but the walls still did not come down.

I was raised in a very “flexible” Catholic family from whom I learned that religion was a means to live by, not to hide in. The tenet of my Christianity was centred on hospitality as in Matthew 25:35: “for I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.” Consequently I was comfortable interacting with a diverse community. I became idealistic about the potential for communal well-being when we are hospitable and welcoming and was drawn into teaching — into a career-long desire to create truly inclusive spaces at school, where understanding and respect were valued as much as intellect and ability; where investing in humanizing structures took precedence over bombs, basketball or test-scores.

As a Catholic educator I knew I should do better. When I embarked on a graduate program in inclusive education, I researched the theme of hospitality in biblical, literary, and psychological writings and discovered the ideal of hospitality in many of the world’s religious writings and ancient stories, and myself rediscovered the Gospel values of peace, justice, and unconditional love. I imagined Catholic educators would embrace Henri Nouwen’s assertion that: “Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but offer them space . . . (where they are) free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to live (her) own.”

Soon enough I was disappointed by a collective lack of interest in doing the work needed for deep change, even though my career was in the Catholic system. Instead, there was a preoccupation with scientific and technological advances that propelled us even further from human community. Despite the contemporary reality around us — its diversity, the teachings of our sacred books, and the language of globalization — many educators continued to value the winners, and to reward speed, beauty, and prestige, mirroring the prevailing values of society rather than universal values and most particularly in secondary schools which seemed to cultivate a culture of powerful and powerless.

Since I was an English as an additional language teacher, my classrooms were as diverse as you might find anywhere. In these micro-communities, we experienced the effects of unconditional welcoming as Nouwen described them. Unfailingly, when students felt less welcome, they struggled to imagine their potential as humans, citizens, or students. I hope my students experienced unconditional welcome in my classrooms, learned about openness, and in their voyages through life will embody and pass on intercultural and ecumenical awareness. In this period of unprecedented migration, perhaps they will “remember always to welcome strangers . . . for some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb 13:1-3), and in entertaining angels may become more genuinely human.

Larraine Ratzlaff is a retired high school EAL (English as an additional language) teacher who is currently teaching adult ESL. She and her husband, Lloyd, live in Saskatoon.