The Pilgrims were immigrants, and the example they offer us is as spiritually and morally urgent today as any institutionalized Sacrament.
That first Thanksgiving was a kind of Communion table in the best sense of the word — a nearly miraculous event that continues to reveal our capacities for tolerance and brotherhood in the face of differences: creeds, material resources, orientations, ways of life.
The Pilgrims did not consider the niceties of local immigration laws when they arrived on our shores. They were fleeing squalid poverty, economic dead ends, and oppression in Holland. They came as many after them have come: diseased, ragged, starving. Because there was no place else on earth for them.
They were welcomed with open arms. This, today, is still a miracle.
They were befriended, trusted, aided — not merely tolerated. This, today, is another miracle.
They and the Massasoit tribe on Cape Cod shared land in mutual support and peace for several generations. A third miracle.
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When I was a child, each November my mother would pull out a cornucopia basket. It became our Thanksgiving centerpiece, jammed full of plastic grapes and apples and walnuts, beneath the dining room crucifix. As a daughter of the Depression, this symbol of plenty was as important to her as were the squashes and fowl to the Pilgrims back in 1623 — a sign of God’s favor.
But for many of us, these images of abundance have become cliché. We had steak last night and will have ample leftovers today. It’s hard to rouse a genuine gratitude such as the Pilgrims felt at having survived a winter that killed half of their members.
Our gratitude has become domesticated, our generosity blasé.
In recent days, Pope Francis has spoken clearly about our need as a wealthy nation to take far more seriously than we do a fairer distribution of our wealth, and this goal is well within our reach, as the many voices of economic redistribution have made patently clear, from providing villages with clean water to supporting the education of women.
But today I would suggest that we look beneath the material wealth that much of the world looks on with envy to the hidden scarcities that no fruit basket can fill. We in America have grown sorely destitute in the qualities that made our abundance possible: trust, a confidence in the goodness of man, basic decency and honesty, the immeasurable value of a fair chance, and the freedom from any kind of tyranny, but most important, the tyranny of the crowd.
At the very heart of our comfortable communities, behind the moats of security, privilege, and financial power, there hide too many “empathy deserts,” places where it is still okay to use racial epithets, or mock gays, or abuse women and children. Safe in enclaves of people just like us, we fortify the invisible walls that we’ve erected between us and the strangers among and around us.
Only a genuine Communion table, founded on gratitude, can lower those walls. The greatest gift the Pilgrims gave to our generation is the image of Chief Massasoit and John Bradford sitting side by side, equals, enjoying the bounty of their shared struggle to survive. This moment, though it would not last any more than did Jesus’ earthly ministry, shows us that peace between nations can be achieved without conquest, differences can abide in mutual respect, need can be overcome through compassion.
Who and what will be at your Thanksgiving table this year? Will there be opportunities for reconciliation? For tolerance? Goodwill toward strangers? Will you be able to neutralize any hate-talk that surfaces? Will you think about the scapegoat, the lonely? Is this a topic that you could imagine bringing up with your children? Who, as we turn towards Advent, needs a gentle bit of welcome?
My family has a tradition that we will enact once more this afternoon. Before the meal begins, we hold hands and each person, down to the smallest child, shares one thing that she is grateful for this year.
On this day, too, it is perhaps good to remember that we need to help not just those living in unendurable privation, but also those in our “empathy deserts” for whom it is so difficult to open to the stranger. Whether they are so locked in their own disappointments, or fears, or sense of failure, that they see in the stranger a vulnerability they hate in themselves, or whether they fear them as competition for scarce jobs, we must find ways to lay down fear and act in a different way.
In the small micro-culture of Plymouth, Massachusetts almost 400 years ago, one of our greatest iconic national stories is also one of Christian resurrection and hope: desperate exiles found a place to call home, welcome in a cold, hard world.
The Pilgrims believed to a person that God was present in the welcome and the mutual aid that was offered them from strangers. Their response was nothing but extravagant gratitude.
Let us this Thanksgiving give thanks for the stranger.