I was thinking about how some people are so puzzled about the way my husband doesn’t get much involved in “church activities.”  He  has expressed that he feels church people are prejudiced against him because of his race, and pastors don’t come to visit us because we are a “mixed race” marriage. And I was thinking, “No, surely that can’t be.” But what I just realized is that there is some truth in what he is saying. It may not be outright prejudice, (as we tend to think of that), but at the least it is a “cultural misunderstanding.”

My husband was brought up in a close-knit village, but the rest of us mostly weren’t. And in that village they knew and lived in many ways what “family” and “body” really mean. We may use those words, but the way we understand and live them are usually on a much more shallow level. Let me tell you how he grew up.

In my husband’s village, everyone is related to everyone else. People mostly don’t lock their doors. You want to see someone, you just walk over to their place and walk in, because you are family. You go into the kitchen and help yourself to a bowl of soup and cup of coffee or whatever. You go sit on the couch or at the kitchen table – with others, or by yourself, as you please. You play with the kids, or go throw a stick for the dog. If you’re tired, you stretch out on the couch, or even on a bed, and have a nap–all night if you want. If supper’s ready, it’s assumed you’ll join in–no invitation necessary. If you see someone’s nannii (grandmother) walking by on the road, looking lost and bewildered, you go outside and wrap your arm around her, and talk to her, and bring her in or take her home because she’s your nannii, too. If you see some kids outside having a fight, you go out and see about it, because they are your family, too. You live the old saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

If someone in your family is very sick and needs round the clock care, people naturally drop by, stay for a while (even overnight) and help out however they can until the crisis is past. The same goes for funerals and weddings and other significant events. Everybody pitches in–immediately. Nobody has to phone people to ask for help. The whole village knows instantly and are there. A wedding is a huge event, but everybody shares in the planning, the cooking, the sewing of outfits, the cost of hall rental, and at the end, after 500 or 1000 people have attended, you are not in debt.

And yes, there are meetings. And for certain kinds of meetings there are traditional, formalized roles. Planning for a wedding or a funeral, for example, everyone knows which “side” (Raven or Eagle clan) will be “in charge” of certain parts of the “ritual,” and that is recognized at the “planning meeting.” But it isn’t like any meeting we go to.

People decide to have the meeting, tell a couple other people, and the people who need to be there start arriving. Everybody knows pretty much whose role is whose, and the village grapevine takes care of letting folks know. People sit around and visit until the necessary people get there. Then the “meeting” is held, which is mostly a series of speeches, mostly by village elders, retelling the stories of family connections, and, as the situation fits, giving advice to the young couple, or offering condolences to the direct family, or whatever the meeting is about. It’s a kind of formal recognition and reminder of family bonds. Then people formally say they will be responsible for this or that role in the upcoming events. You don’t ask people or twist their arms.

Everyone knows who “traditionally” fulfills certain roles, or who has a particular skill (mine became making several hundred buns, or a few dozen pies, within a few hours) so you are just expected to do that. But you are rarely expected to do it alone. (Yes, I’d be making all those pies … but all the flour, lard, and apples I’d need would start arriving at my doorstep–and about the time I’d be ready to start, I’d often have helpers turn up to pitch in).

Now I am going to talk from my own experience of meetings in my husband’s village, church meetings particularly. The service (whether in a church or at a home, or for a special event like a wake) was scheduled for a regular time and day. I’m told that in the old days, nearly the whole community would come out, but in my time it was sometimes a smaller group, though for special events there was always a big crowd. The meeting might be set for 6 pm, and people would start drifting in about 6:30 and a couple people would start playing instruments. Lots of people played; you didn’t have to be considered talented. A sing-song would start, people calling out favourites, other people standing to give a testimony, someone standing to ask for prayer, someone reading a scripture. Around 7 or when most folks had arrived, the leader would start the meeting with welcoming words, a prayer, and any announcements. Finally, the pastor or another person would speak. Because this was a traditionally “oral” culture, people learned how to speak well. A sermon could easily last an hour or even an hour and a half, as speakers were respected.

Most times, when the sermon was over, there would be more singing for quite a while, and some people would be praying with others or listening and counseling or whatever. Most times, people would start wandering into the kitchen or fellowship room, and pretty soon everybody would be sitting around having coffee and sandwiches, and visiting (people just naturally brought food, whatever they felt like bringing). Before others ate, people would always serve up a nice selection to every naanii or chinni (elders/seniors) as a matter of respect. When everyone had eaten their fill, paper plates would be brought out, and everyone would help themselves to a sampling of the leftovers, to take home. It was a insult to have to take home something you had brought! Again, people would gather up extra-large servings of take-home food for the elders, and also for people having difficulties or whatever, so they wouldn’t have so much cooking to do for a while. Finally, everyone would help tidy up, and head home–or maybe to each other’s homes for more visiting.

My husband’s village, like many other villages (and like wherever you live; it’s a human condition) was dysfunctional in lots of ways. And yes, much of that can be traced to family breakdown through cultural destruction, initially due to the smallpox epidemics which decimated a majority of the people,  followed by generations of residential schools, the outlawing of traditional customs, harsh prejudice, imposition of foreign customs and religious practices, destruction of traditional economic practices, and much more.

But despite all that, and maybe in part because of it too, families are protective of each other. But that unity and caring also clearly comes out of a long tradition that values and upholds family values and connection, both in the extended family and in the entire village.

Sadly, there are people who see natives as being lazy or n’er-do-wells, because they may not hold down 8-hour-a-day, 50-week-a-year jobs, they may “drop out” of the white man’s educational system, arrive late for the white man’s meetings, and may not mow their yards or keep their houses looking “pretty” in the white man’s manner.

But what I have learned from experience is that it isn’t laziness. It’s a different approach to life. In my husband’s village, when it’s fishing season, or berry-picking season, or whatever, a lot of people pitch in and work like crazy. The whole family goes to the fishing camp or the berry patches, and everybody helps until the job is done. The same thing happens when there is a crisis, like a death. Everybody pitches in, helps, cares, and not just for the day of the funeral, but for as long as it takes, before and after. Same with celebrations. And all those other life events that we associate with family and community. And then when things are quiet, they relax, go around and visit with each other, make music, do art.

And if some of them really do seem to be lazy (from our viewpoint, of course), there’s a good chance it is because they have had stolen from them their livelihoods, their lands, their traditional ways of living and surviving–and have not been given any worthwhile alternatives, but too often just tossed bits of useless land we don’t want for ourselves, and welfare cheques, and whiskey to drown their sorrows.

We had a pastor once, from “outside,” who was insulted because the people arrived late for church, and they wore muddy gumboots to church–which were, by the way, really a necessity much of the time in the coastal rainforest climate! “No respect,” he felt. He, on the other hand, felt he was showing respect by inviting church members, family by family, to his home for meals. Unfortunately, he fed the white people upstairs in the dining room, but native families were fed downstairs in the rec room, because, as he explained to us, native people live in dumpy houses and wouldn’t feel comfortable in the formal dining room. I know this pastor meant well, but he related to certain cultural standards he cherished, such as being on time, dressing fancy for church, and keeping your house perfect. And so he missed out on becoming part of the village “family,” and he lost much of his “church family” in the process, as they stopped coming to church.

(from my journal notes – Date: February 16, 2007)