Be open and listen! That was the advice given to Edith and Neill von Gunten before their first ministry experience in an Indigenous community many years ago. It soon led to a valuable lesson right in their living room in Manigotagan, Man.
Our children were in bed – it was Bible study night, with seven or eight of us gathered on the sofa and chairs. We’d been living in Manigotagan for almost a year and felt at home with our new friends, especially our neighbours Norman and Thelma.
We were chatting over coffee, tea and chocolate cake. Norman was quiet and thoughtful. This was unusual. He’d been quite involved during the Bible study discussion. We figured he was pondering something important.
When the conversation lulled and there was nothing but the clink of cups and forks, Norman spoke in his firm yet gentle way. “Neill, did you think you were better than the rest of us in Manigotagan when you moved here?”
The question stopped me in my tracks. My heart leaped into my throat. Heads bobbed up, and the conversation stopped. Everyone was as surprised as me, and they all turned my way, waiting for my response. I had to take an honest look at myself before I could answer truthfully.
Despite my surprise that Norman would ask such a loaded question, I was glad he felt free to do so, even in front of others. He deserved an honest answer, and it was right there in my heart, but it wasn’t easy to admit.
Did you think you were better than the rest of us when you moved here?
“Yes, I did, Norman,” I finally replied. “I came here after two years of studying at Bible college, and I thought I had a lot of answers.” With everyone’s eyes fixed on me, I continued. “I don’t feel that way now, though. I’ve learned so much from the people here – including you – and I know I have much more to learn.
“For example, you taught me God the creator was here long before us settlers arrived, and that Creator speaks to us through all of nature, if we’re willing to listen.” I looked from Norman to each person in the room by turn. “You’ve all taught me so much about God and His Creation. The Spirit is very alive in this community. Over the past year, I’ve gained deep appreciation for the respectful way you make your living off the land and water, and how your families have struggled to survive as a people all these years.”
Norman smiled. “I can tell. You’re different,” he said. “You seem to understand us better, and your family has become an important part of our families and community.”
My relationship with Norman has continued to grow over the years. Both of us like to look at situations from different perspectives. Sometimes we even take sides to debate an issue – and then switch sides so we can understand both perspectives better. A big part of our relationship is our ability to be truthful and honest with one another, and to stay open to new ways of thinking.
That night I learned a valuable lesson because someone had the courage to help me look at myself honestly and admit my shortcomings. Norman’s question wasn’t intended to deride me, but to help me realize how our attitudes toward others show like an open book – even when we think they don’t.
The question also helped me and Edith realize we are on a journey of seeing people for who they are and what God is doing in their lives, rather than dwelling on who we think they should be. We know without a doubt that God is at work in the lives of others, even when their experiences and faith are expressed differently than ours.
Relationships of trust and mutual respect grow when they’re nurtured. We came to realize we are fellow travelers on the same journey – a journey of seeking God the creator and God’s Son, Jesus Christ. We all have a lot to learn from each other about how God is being revealed in our lives and cultures.
We all have a lot to learn from each other.
It takes honest self-reflection, humility to admit what we find, and courage to undertake this journey. But the benefits far outweigh any discomfort we might experience.
Be open and listen! That advice is still crucial for any of us reaching into a culture and lifestyle other than our own. Otherwise, we miss so much of what God wants to teach us through other people.
Edith and Neill von Gunten have been involved in reconciliation work for 50 years, from the Black-led civil rights struggles of the 1960s to decades-old relationships with Indigenous peoples on both sides of Lake Winnipeg. This blog series is produced in collaboration with the Peace & Reconciliation Network. Read all the posts at faithtoday.ca/reconciling.
Fifty years of stories
Edith and Neill von Gunten are launching a book, Walking Together: Intercultural Stories of Love and Acceptance, in Sept. 2022. It is a collection of their ministry stories that illustrate redemptive love in action. These stories draw similarities between familiar biblical concepts and seven Ojibwe way-of-life teachings. They model an openness to spiritual knowledge across culture and tradition.
Walking Together invites the church to grapple with questions of racism and Christian supremacy in order to see that all peoples and cultures bear Creator’s beauty and gifts, and that our reconciliation – even our salvation – depends upon embracing that truth.
The book is now available from CommonWord.ca. An online book launch is planned for Sept. 29.