When I worked in Kenya, I was part of a visible minority. Because we lived and worked well outside the cosmopolitan city of Nairobi, we were among the few white people around. Many times, I was the only white person in the area. Whether it was teaching at the school, preaching in a bush church somewhere, getting groceries or just talking a walk, it was obvious that I was different from everyone else.
I got used to being watched–and I am pretty sure that whatever I did was reported to some peer group of those watching. A Kenyan friend joked with me one day about his kids and other village kids observing my behaviour on my daily walk. Walking for exercise was something that obviously only the strange white person did.
Being part of a visible minority meant that I was the focus of a lot of attention–and as people got to know me, I became the source of information about all things relating to my group. I was the representative white person, except that in Kenya, I was a “mzungu”, a Kiswahili word that supposedly was coined to describe these bizarre new people who appeared in Kenya. We travelled around a lot, and so the descriptive word for our minority group was developed from the Kiswahili verb describing that behaviour.
No detail of my life and behaviour was beyond the scope of the majority group curiosity. Are all Wazungu (plural of mzungu) left handed? Do all Wazungu have beards? What do Wazungu eat? How come some Wazungu don’t like Kenyans? Do you know that Mzungu from (naming a place thousands of kilometers from where I live)? How do Wazungu tell their children apart?
Because I like Kenya and really enjoyed my interactions with people there, being a part of a visible minority wasn’t all that difficult for me. Certainly, there were a few occasions when I had to bear the burden of the stupidity and prejudice of other members of my minority group–but I soon found that openly addressing such issues in fluent Kiswahili helped both me and the other person(s) deal with the issues. I did sometimes get tired of the assumption that because I was a Mzungu, I had to be filthy rich and so could put any and all kids through school, as well as give someone money for a meal, a car, a house, a doctoral program or whatever.
In Canada, I fit in as part of the majority. My colour, language, customs and all the rest are pretty much the same as everyone else–well, I drive a Jeep rather than a Ford but those are relatively minor things. Even my walking isn’t all that strange, although I do need a hiking stick these days because of my bad knees–but even hiking sticks are getting fairly common on the streets of our small town.
But I am still part of a visible minority in Canada. Yesterday, I and less than 20% of Canadians attended a Christian worship service. That makes me a part of a visible minority–people see me leave home and go into a place of worship. Granted, given that Sunday morning has become a sleep in, start slow day for many Canadians these days, not many actually see me go into a place of worship but I also go to an afternoon worship service and I know people see me go there because friends who don’t go to worship have commented on seeing me there.
There are a lot of similarities between my minority experience in Kenya and my minority experience in Canada. In both places, I become a representative of my minority group. In both contexts, people outside the minority group are watching the minority group. In both settings, there is curiosity about the minority group. In both places, there are questions and misconceptions about the minority group.
As I think about the Christian faith in North America, I think we need to spend some serious time looking at our position as a minority group. Statistically, the vast majority of North Americans claim belief in God–but fewer and fewer express that belief in traditional Christian patterns, making those of us who do a smaller and smaller visible minority. How we represent our minority becomes a matter of significance for us, our minority group and those outside our group. The next few posts will look at some of the implications of being a visible minority.
The peace of God be with you.