Blending in in Quebec City, August, 2015
“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”
“Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”
1 Peter 4:9-10 NIV
I have always had an empathetic connection to the civil rights movement. In the early 60’s my family encountered ethnic pressures in a “Quiet Revolution” that caused us to pack up and move from Quebec to Virginia. We switched racial status—from being among the minority of native English Quebecers to being among the majority of southern whites. How times change. Virginia has lost a lot of its ‘southern’ culture, but in 1963 it was strong. I remember being in the back seat of our family’s car while we drove past a cross burning beside a highway interchange. I was too young at the time to know what was going on but knew it was about hatred and fear. We didn’t have any dogs in that fight. We were in Virginia because my father wanted to work and raise a family on a level playing field. That’s all.
My brother and I became completely assimilated into the mid-Atlantic way of life. Dad would express frustration from time to time with Quebec separatists, and we (more or less) passively inherited some of his prejudices. They didn’t seem like ‘prejudices’ at the time, but looking back that’s probably a fair assessment. Ethnic, nationalist and political strife have torn at Canada for decades over the issue of sovereignty for Quebec. In 1995, the year my father died, a national referendum that would have turned Quebec into an independent country was defeated by an extremely narrow margin.
I haven’t really kept up with Canadian politics, much less the temperature of the separatist movement. So when my wife announced this summer that she wanted to visit Quebec City, I really didn’t know what to expect. I had heard that French Canadians were unfriendly to Americans, particularly if the Americans could not converse in French. I struggled through college French 35 years ago, so I was less than optimistic about how we would be treated.
Quebec City is one of the most charming, clean and beautiful places in North America. It is a city planner’s dream—beautiful public squares, monuments and statues, lavish stonework, French provincial architecture, lofty vertical buildings that tower over cobblestone streets, flowers and gardens everywhere, sidewalk cafes, talented street performers, horse-drawn carriages, avant-garde restaurants, and people sitting on benches enjoying all the beauty that surrounds them. We didn’t see trash anywhere, not even gum on the sidewalks. The City has a profound Catholic foundation—the major streets and city gates (it’s the only walled city north of Mexico) are named after apostles and saints. There are churches and cathedrals everywhere.
How were we treated? For a couple of language-challenged foreigners, everyone we encountered was extremely friendly and helpful. As soon as they discovered we couldn’t speak the language, they immediately switched to English. Everyone we met was cheerful and hospitable, even complete strangers standing in line to order poutine at Fromagerie Lemaire. Their warmth was striking. Not at all what I had expected.
19th-century pragmatic American philosopher William James wrote, “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” (Dick Woodward used that quote frequently.) The apostle Peter wrote, “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” After being in Quebec this week, I can’t help but wonder if Peter’s instruction might have had some pragmatic value in motivating others to change their opinions. The New Testament is full of instructions to be cheerful and to respond to prejudicial behavior with kindness and charity—to treat adversaries with respect and gentleness.
“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:44 NIV)
“You must put away every kind of bitterness, anger, wrath, quarreling, and evil, slanderous talk. Instead, be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32 NET)
“Let everyone see your gentleness. The Lord is near!” (Philippians 4:5 NET)
“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct he should show his works done in the gentleness that wisdom brings.” (James 3:13 NET)
“But reject foolish and ignorant controversies, because you know they breed infighting. And the Lord’s slave must not engage in heated disputes but be kind toward all, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:23-25a NET)
“But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess. Yet do it with courtesy and respect, keeping a good conscience, so that those who slander your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame when they accuse you.” (1 Peter 3:15-16 NET)
“Do everything without grumbling or arguing,” (Philippians 2:14 NET)
Sometimes being a Christian is like fighting with your hands tied behind your back. We get kicked and slapped and even worse, then we have to fight back with kindness, compassion, empathy, and respect. It can take incredible patience. What we experienced in Quebec was a powerful reminder of the best way to deal with people who don’t like us. Has Quebec turned the corner on ethnic strife? Who am I to say? But their kindness and hospitality makes me want to rearrange my prejudices.
Le Château Frontenac, Quebec City
HT: Marion Paine