Finding God in the American Neighborhood

You can be transformed by your community.  God is calling us to re-enter our neighborhoods and discover what the Spirit is doing there.  Below a Canadian professor shares her experience of living in the United States and how she was shaped by the local church.

D: Today I have with me Dr. Natasha Duquette from Tyndale University College and Seminary.  Dr. Duquette, can you please share a bit about yourself and your experiences of living in the United States?

N: In January 2009, I moved from Edmonton, Canada, to Los Angeles, California, to begin a job as an Assistant Professor of English at Biola University. In 2010, I was promoted to Associate Professor, and then in 2011, I was invited me to become the Chair of the Biola English Department. Up until this time, I did not feel the cultural differences between America and Canada acutely. It was when I moved into a leadership position as chair, and began attending large administrative meetings that I noticed stronger cultural, organizational, and sociological differences.  Also, my husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer towards the end of 2011, and trying to navigate the United States health insurance system was quite alienating.

I grew up sensitive to cultural differences because my father was the child of Ukrainian immigrants to Canada, and at most family gatherings I would hear Ukrainian, not English, being spoken around me. In some ways, while I was in the U.S.A., this family background made me very aware of my immigrant status every day. For our first couple of years, Fred and I were “legal alien residents.” We laughed at the term “alien,” with reference to UFOs, but I really did feel alien.

D: You had lived in the United States for over 5 years, can you please share with us what that was like and how it was different from living in Canada?

Well, as a Canadian I did feel very uneasy with the healthcare system. I made a promise to myself that if Fred or I came down with something serious, like cancer, we would return to Canada. So, when I was called to Tyndale in 2013, it was very easy to answer that call. I jumped at the chance to return home. Aspects of American society that I did enjoy and now miss are: warm hospitality, energetic dialogue, fearless faith, collaborative enterprise, innovative flexibility, and openness to the new … or the newcomer.

D: Can you list some pros and cons about living in America?

N: I think I began to list the pros above, but I would also add: generosity (of spirit and resources), willingness to take risks, creativity, independence (even in young people), and zeal for adventure or living large. Perhaps some of these are generalizations, but they reflect what I observed. One point about gender: the American women talked more openly and confidently and boldly than here in Canada. When I arrived back in Canada, I felt like I was being “shushed” a lot in social settings. Now I have been back for almost two years, and that does not happen anymore. In the U.S. my colleagues (American men and women) often encouraged me to be more assertive and share my ideas more frequently.

In terms of cons, some forms of American nationalism were quite unsettling. I was not used to driving around in my car and seeing all the others cars with “God Bless America!” bumper stickers. I wanted to put a “God Bless Canada!” bumper sticker my car.

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D: Was there anything you found different about going to Church in the US versus Canada?

N: It was difficult to find a church community, and we moved between three different churches during our five years. In Edmonton we had always attended one church, where we were officially members. The same was true in our early years of marriage in Kingston, Ontario. In Southern California, people around us also seemed to move between churches a lot.

D: Can you describe one ‘alienating’ experience you’ve had with an American church and explain what made it so alienating?

Yes. At one church we attended there was a Memorial Day service which was more like a nationalist political rally, with large American flags. I think that immigrants who were present that day, whether as church members or visitors, would have felt ill at ease. I felt like the flag was the focus of worship rather than Christ.

Also, at the churches we had attended in Kingston or Edmonton if there was a meal it would be potluck or food made by a specific group within the church. I noticed larger American churches would have expensive, catered food. I missed the experience of cooking together as well as eating together and even cleaning dishes together.

The music at the services in the big American churches was very professionally produced, and while we were attending one church with multiple services, my husband started asking me on Saturday what “show” we would be attending that week. This was a signal to me of something wrong.

D: After the ‘alienating’ experience, you’ve mentioned having a completely opposite church experience where you felt ‘relieved’, can you go into some details there?

N: My colleague Jamie Campbell has helped me find a community that was less alienating for me.  One day I was at work when Fred was having a biopsy. Jamie asked me what was wrong, and I just blurted out: “Fred is having a biopsy to check for cancer in his prostate.” Jamie looked at me with seriousness and compassion. She simply said, “That’s hard.” I started to cry right there in the hallway, and she gave me a warm hug. Then, Fred and I started going to her church, which had a largely Filipino congregation. She hugged me into that church!  Their worship was not over-produced. They had a group of dancers who would perform liturgical hula dancing to worship music. It was very delicate and beautiful and emotionally powerful. They had big potlucks where the Filipino families — as well as the Biola students, staff, and faculty who attended the church — would bring a wide assortment of home-made food. It reminded me of the big extended family gatherings my Ukrainian relatives would have in Grassland, Alberta, with an enormous amount of mouth-watering food.  That Filipino church was deeply comforting to me as a Canadian Prairie granddaughter of Ukrainian immigrants, herself an immigrant, living in the big, aggressive, USA!

So, I found God in the American Neighborhood of La Mirada, California, amidst a beautiful group of compassionate and caring Filipinos. The older people would occasionally speak Tagalog, but that did not alienate me at all, because it reminded me of being at family gatherings where my Baba (grandmother) would be speaking Ukrainian, and I would have no clue what she was saying, but I knew she loved me anyway. I felt at home in the smaller church full of warm and loving immigrant families. I made friends there, like Angela Sugimura Warner, who I would run with, and who encouraged me to try my first half-marathon in Pasadena. For my last few years at Biola (2011-2014), I also ran regularly with a Philosophy professor named Kristen Irwin who became a dear friend. I definitely felt close to God while running with women friends under the California sun.

D: What are some lessons you’ve taken away from living on the American side of the world?

N: Well, I feel humbled now that I realize there are aspects I miss about California — such as going for hour-long walks with Fred in the warm evenings, all year round, and having women friends who like to run together. Canadians are a bit more solitary, and it can be hard to develop friendships. Americans can be very transparent with their feelings, positive or negative, and it is often more difficult to tell what a Canadian is thinking. I do experience life suspended “in between” the two cultures now. I came back North with a (somewhat misplaced) zealous sense of Canadian nationalism, which is ironic considering my earlier critique of American nationalism, but now I see that every country is fallible. No nation is perfect. Every place has its pros and cons. Christians are ultimately citizens of the Kingdom of God, connected to eternal realities, regardless of our somewhat arbitrary earthly nation of residence.

D: Do you have any final words of advice for those who have lived in only one country, and perhaps even going to only one church?

N: We need to be aware of the differences and tensions which varying cultural backgrounds create while still remembering our familial ties as children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ.  “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” (Psalm 133: 1 NRSV). I like the definition of “Harmony” as “Diversity in Unity.” One important lesson I learnt from working in Southern California is that group harmony is more important than efficiency or getting things done quickly. We need to slow down and take time to understand each other’s perspectives and the experiences that have shaped those perspectives. We cannot let the “tyranny of the urgent” or the “cult of efficiency” destroy communal shalom. I was very task-oriented in the past, but I now see social ties can be severed by pushing through towards a goal without considering the multiple cultural viewpoints represented in a community.

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Sheryl Takagi Silzer – a wise Japanese American woman who does cross-cultural communication consultation throughout California has much to say on the matter.  She has taught me that cultural change takes a long time, sometimes decades, and we must be patient and persevere as we move towards greater understanding.  I highly recommend her book, “Biblical Multicultural Teams: Applying Biblical Truth to Cultural Differences”. So, if you are trying to understand another cultural perspective, be gentle with yourself and with others.

Dr. Natasha Duquette

Associate Academic Dean
Associate Professor of English
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Dr. Duquette’s work has appeared in journals such as Notes and Queries, Mosaic, Christianity and Literature, Persuasions-Online, and English Studies in Canada. She has edited two collections,Sublimer Aspects: Interfaces between Literature, Aesthetics, and Theology (Cambridge Scholars, 2007) and Jane Austen and the Arts: Elegance, Propriety, and Harmony (Lehigh University Press, 2013). For the Chawton House Library series, she created an annotated edition of Helen Maria Williams’ Julia (Pickering & Chatto, 2009). Collaborative projects have resulted in her contributions to Jane Austen Sings the Blues (University of Alberta Press, 2009), Through a Glass Darkly: Suffering, the Sacred, and the Sublime in Literature and Theory (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010), and Christian Scholarship in the Twenty-First Century: Prospects and Perils (Eerdmans, 2014). Her monograph Veiled Intent: Dissenting Women’s Aesthetic Approach to Biblical Hermeneutics is forthcoming with Pickwick. An active member of the British Association of Romantic Studies, the Jane Austen Society of North America, and the Conference on Christianity and Literature, Dr. Duquette thrives in interdisciplinary environments that bring together biblical studies, theology, philosophy and literature.

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