What Does Solidarity Look Like?



In the light of the present refugee crisis the word “solidarity” is experiencing a resurgence in popularity.

Solidarity is a word with a nice ring to it. It brings up images of resistance movements on behalf of the poor and innocent. It makes for a good slogan—a nice word painted in red on a white bed sheet flown from a pole and held aloft in a protest march.

But what does solidarity look like in action?

Let me tell you a story—a story told to me by a friend whose family’s life was changed because one woman stood in solidarity with a suffering people.

The story begins on the eve of World War II when nearly 30,000 people of Japanese decent lived in the Vancouver area of British Columbia, Canada. They were hard working immigrants and loyal to their new homeland. But with the bombing of Pearl Harbor these peaceable people were labeled “enemy aliens.”

All those of Japanese decent, 80 percent of whom were born in Canada, were forcibly removed from their homes, stripped of all property and citizenship rights, and corralled into tent ghettos in Vancouver city parks. From there, most were moved by train to abandoned mining towns, known popularly as “ghost towns,” in the BC interior. Here they lived in stables and tar-papered shacks.

Into this bleak scene steps our heroine—our woman of solidarity. Her name: Margaret Ridgeway. Her age: 28 years old. In many ways an average person, friends would later recount that she suffered from chronic insecurity. But what she lacked in emotional fortitude she made up for in conviction.

It is easy to imagine the Hollywood version of the scene (should there ever be one): It’s dusk with a drizzle of rain. Margaret stands weeping, hands clenched at her chest, as the train fills with her Japanese friends. Not being able to stand the tortuous goodbyes a moment longer she flings herself onto the departing train in an act of spontaneous solidarity, leaving her own mother weeping and wringing her hands at the reckless behavior of her Good Samaritan daughter.

In reality Margaret traveled to the “ghost town” alone, by bus. Her decision to stand in solidarity with her Japanese friends was as calculated as it was compassionate. She could not sit safely by while her friends endured the humiliation and discrimination of life in the ghost towns.

She was not allowed to live in the camp with the detainees, but rented a small cottage on a lake and from there travelled throughout the camps, visiting Japanese friends she had made in Vancouver.

She started a Happy Hour Bible Club for children and a Handcraft Club for teenage girls.

Could anything be more quaint and bygone?

Margaret was a Bible School girl who knew how to sew. This is what she had to offer. She did what she could with what she had.

It’s doubtful that learning to sew a blanket stitch is what kept these interned teenagers from despair. What changed their lives was the kind face and the kind actions of a white woman when other white women had turned from them in fear. It was simply Margaret’s presence that gave them hope. Her presence meant they mattered.

Despite her insecurity (and maybe because of it?) Margaret Ridgeway could stand with those in the most insecure of circumstances.

Her actions were not heroic, they were simply human—one human recognizing the humanity and decency of other humans.

I first heard Margaret’s story from a friend named Paul. Paul is a well-educated, wise and influential Christian man of Japanese decent. When I asked how he became a Christian he told me about Margaret. His parents had been in the internment camp where Margaret worked. They knew the girls who learned the blanket stitch in her cottage.

When the war ended Paul’s parents rebuilt their life back on the coast of BC. When their son was old enough they insisted he attend Sunday School at the local church, though they never went themselves. “Because of that nice woman in the camp,” they said.


Images courtesy of Canadian Japanese Ministries