What Americans commonly call the “First Thanksgiving” was observed by the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation, sometime between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11, 1621. Out of the hundred folks who came over on the Mayflower, fifty had survived to see a successful harvest and, let me tell you, they were ready to celebrate. Ninety Native Americans joined them, and they did it even though they were very much aware of the dangers of doing so. They had already experienced a hundred years of European slave traders raiding their villages. But the Pilgrims had little and the Native Americans had much, and it was their glory to give. “Among many of our peoples,” says Jacqueline Keeler, “Showing you can give without holding back is the way to earn respect. Among the Dakota, my father’s people, they say, when asked to give, ‘Are we not Dakota and alive?’”
That’s the First Thanksgiving, and it has set the tone for innumerable other stories of Thanksgiving down the years, like today’s story, How Many Days to America. Refugees who have left home because it’s been spoiled somehow, and the journey is dangerous, but you never let go of the vision of
tomorrow comes, tomorrow comes,
and we shall all be free
and you sing it and you whisper it and you write it upon your heart. The journey continues on, and sometimes you are afraid and sometimes you are comforted, and sometimes you meet enemies but you also meet friends, friends whose glory is in giving, and it happens, you get to the other side, you find a new home, you find a new life.
America is all about this. Loss. Risk. Generosity. A new life. And gratitude for it.
But side-by-side with this vision are losses that haven’t been balanced out by the gain of a new life, at least not yet; or losses that look to an uncertain future. In neither case are people feeling much gratitude.
I think of the Cherokee nation centered around the north Atlanta suburb of Roswell. In 1829, gold was discovered in Dahlonega, Georgia, and what followed was the nation’s first Gold Rush. Only problem was, the lands were Cherokee, so the Cherokee had to go. They were forcibly removed in 1838 by American soldiers, enforcing American law, passed by Congress and the President. Thousands died on the Trail of Tears, which took a broken-hearted people all the way west to Oklahoma.
What many people call Thanksgiving is a day of mourning for Native Americans. Their glory was in giving, but what they got back was disease and treachery over and over again. A Georgian soldier who participated in the removal would later say, “I fought through the War Between the States and have seen many men shot, but the Cherokee Removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.”
This Thanksgiving time is a time of disturbing tensions. Gratitude and grief.
If you are lucky to be celebrating Thanksgiving with family—not everyone is—you may find yourself feeling this tension most intensely this year, and millions of Americans join you. You’ll gather with family around tables groaning under the weight of all the amazing food and with the murmur of football playing on TVs in the background, but those family members: they voted for a candidate who spun visions of a nation overrun with “bad hombres” crossing American borders and infiltrating communities to rob and kill. There are nearly 60 million refugees around the world—we’ve never seen numbers as large as these, and no wonder, given the 15 or so wars being fought right now, in addition to everything else—and Americans could have followed the lead of the Dakota to say, “Are we not Americans and alive?” We could have lived up to the words on the Statue of Liberty. But he talks about “extreme vetting.” He says, “Build a wall!” and so many, many people cheered, and he’s the one who won.
In that moment, when he won, did you feel that (in some sense) you had just lost America? That America was lost to you? That home had just been spoiled?
The father of the story says, “We must leave right now.” “We do not think the way they think.” Can you relate?
Come Thursday, you might find yourself sitting at a family table, and you might find yourself wondering how these people who truly do love you and you truly love them voted they way they did. All the turkey, all the stuffing, all the pumpkin pie—drenched with disappointment and confusion and awkwardness and more.
What do we do?
Just the other day I was lucky to catch a CBS “This Morning” interview of Jon Stewart, who used to anchor The Daily Show. He said things that I want to take into the holidays with me, because they help, and I hope you will as well.
“I thought that Donald Trump,” he says, “disqualified himself at numerous points, but there is now this idea that anyone who voted for him has to be defined by the worst of his rhetoric. There are guys in my neighborhood,“ he continues, ”that I love and respect who are not afraid of Muslims and Mexicans and Blacks but they are afraid of insurance premiums.” And then John Stewart says, “In the liberal community you hate the idea of creating people as a monolith. Don’t look at Muslims as a monolith. They are individuals. It would be ignorance. But everyone who voted for Trump is a monolith, is a racist.”
What do you think about that, Unitarian Universalists? Some pretty pointed words to wrestle with, to take to heart. They don’t make me feel any less anxious or angry about what a Trump presidency might bring, but perhaps they might help to repair relationships with some of the people I need in my life, even if I firmly disagree with the way they voted.
It’s about insisting on staying curious, no matter what. One of my all-time go-to prayers is
the Mystery unfolds
but I never knew that it could also speak to the political realities of my nation.
Yes it does.
But John Stewart said something else that would be good to take into this Thanksgiving time. It’s later in the interview, which was conducted by Charlie Rose. Jon Stewart has just pointed out the penchant that liberals have for making Trump voters into monoliths, and that we have to fight against that. “This, he says, “is the fight we wage against ourselves and each other because America is not natural. America is tribal. We’re fighting against thousands of years of human behavior and history to create something that no one’s ever created before. That’s what’s exceptional about America and it ain’t easy.”
Ah, America. When we screw up, we go big. Too many people have been born into an abusive relationship with this country. Or, the country goes and picks fights….
Now we wonder what’s next.
But we need to remember what Jon Stewart says so perfectly: America is not natural. I don’t know what “Let’s Make America Great Again” means but I’ll tell you what I think about “Let’s Make America Great”: It’s a greatness where the most vulnerable among us are lifted up. It’s a greatness where we apologize for our screw ups and make amends. It’s a greatness of a multicultural, multiethnic democracy. It’s a greatness that says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
That’s why we dream, and dream, and never stop dreaming. We, who are already here in America, dreaming with people like the father in today’s story and with the 60 million refugees worldwide, saying
tomorrow comes, tomorrow comes,
and we shall all be free…
and we sing it and we whisper it and we write it upon your heart. Never giving the dream up, no matter how unnatural it really is and no matter how it flies in the face of tribal instincts which are right now erupting in countries all across the world, Brexit and beyond….
Saying, with Maya Angelou, when she spoke at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton back in 1993
History despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
This Thanksgiving, remember that the horizon leans forward.
Be curious about the people that you feel you don’t know anymore. Bring the same curiosity to yourself.
It ain’t easy, but the work is worthy, and worth it.
Are we not Americans and alive?
Lift up your eyes upon the day breaking.
Tomorrow comes, tomorrow comes,
and we shall all be free…