Who is the alien?
When Moses wrote “Do not deprive the alien of justice” (Deuteronomy 24:17), highrise complexes in Toronto were the farthest thing from his mind. The words landed first on an ancient clan weary of travel; a huge homeless family for whom nationhood was a trembling dream.
Nonetheless, these commands came as the foundation of an anticipated community. While they themselves are still wandering as “aliens,” God commands the Israelites regarding how they should treat those far from home, with an explanation deeply rooted in their own journey. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there” (Deuteronomy 24:18). The logic is devastating, and it’s not wearing out as the centuries roll on.
The first planned highrise community in Toronto was designed to house 12,500 people in a comfy crescent of high- and low-rise rental units. It now serves as a landing mat for more than 30,000 newcomers to Canada. Emotional, financial, or genetic ties connect this patch of earth to most corners of the globe. The largest group has roots in South Asia (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh) and Afghanistan, but there is a noticeable Filipino contingent, and growing populations from North Africa, the Middle East, and Mainland China. In this place, the commands that communicated Yahweh’s heart for the “alien” beg to be examined again.
Still the stranger
After three years in this neighbourhood, I am the alien here. Outside the neighbourhood, where my neighbours negotiate the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission), a maze of government offices, and the twisted realm of potential employment, they are aliens. But among the apartment towers, I’m pretty sure it’s me who doesn’t quite fit.
In the evening, tight circles of middle-aged men from Pakistan spring up all over the neighbourhood. They sit on the grass and chat in Urdu. Women do the same, usually with a big cloth to sit on, and always with refreshments.
Too many kids dodge too recklessly between the clusters on bikes seemingly devoid of brakes. Teenagers play cricket in a parking lot using someone’s car as a backstop while the baseball diamond remains conspicuously vacant. Children swarm the ice cream truck, but their parents are more interested in the grey van with tattered plastic lettering out of which come loads of mangoes and vegetables, hotly bartered over. Clothing – marketed nearby – hangs on a fence, flapping in the breeze like odd-shaped flags.
For a long-time Canadian in this neighbourhood, God’s command to show generosity to those culturally displaced, and the reminder that I am culturally displaced, continue to overlap. I see the alien and I am the alien at the very same time.
There can be no question, however, who is more in need of justice. I have a job in keeping with my qualifications, my extended family and friend network is a five-minute drive away, and I don’t need to learn another language to do the key things in my life. I can vote and complain effectively when I’m wronged. I can’t imagine anyone questioning my legitimate presence here in Canada. If I were deprived of justice, someone would have to pay.
But in my adopted neighbourhood, trained medical professionals drive taxis for more than 12 hours per day. People take volunteer positions that never lead to jobs, or get jobs but are never paid. Even with the mosque leader’s assurances, a professional accountant from Jordan quits his new food preparation job when he discovers he’s working with pork. (His beliefs won’t allow him to work with the forbidden meat despite his family’s desperate financial state.) Every day brings new situations, but justice often stays out of reach.
Enter the body of Christ
How does the body of Christ meaningfully enter where it is needed but not necessarily wanted? For many here, the concept of church is not only mistrusted and misunderstood but also very far from their everyday struggle – it is alien.
It’s hard for any human to envision that an alien message and community carry anything of deep relevance. That goes both ways: those alienated from the church have trouble accepting the community of Christ has anything to offer them; those part of the church often hesitate to answer the call to follow Christ where our message is completely unknown.
Which is greater, their mistrust or our hesitation? It’s an exhilarating possibility that newcomers are more eager to see the gospel than we are to display it to them.
Jesus led the way in dealing with this double alienation. He was the most alien of all. His very nature was something completely different from the entire population of humans (Philippians 2:6). And yet, he was so undeniably human that he lived in obscurity for 30 years despite the stir caused by his birth.
Encounters with him had people scrambling to discover where his knowledge, authority, power, and compassion came from. He was at once a mind-blowing phenomenon and an ordinary, despised Nazarene. His thoughts, love, and presence were all from another place, yet he brought them here in a way that has made sense to people groups all over the planet for two millennia.
In answer to our prayers, may Christ wake the nations in Toronto to the goodness of his news, and wake the gospel community to live as aliens among aliens in ways that will gradually wash away every human barrier.
–Church planter X
The author has lived in one of the most densely populated Toronto highrise neighbourhoods. He is a volunteer member of a church planter team supported by the Ontario MB conference. Both the author and the neighbourhood remain unnamed for the safety of new converts and seekers who may experience backlash for the decision and association.