Meals, Thanksgiving and Refugees

For much of the year, we’ve seen heart-wrenching pictures of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Desperate, they sold whatever they could, left the people they loved, and climbed onto a boat with the barest of possessions. Many people have died in the process. Who among us can forget the image of that little child washed up, dead, on a beach?

I am struck today, by the parallels to our country’s Thanksgiving story. The people we hail as forefathers were also immigrants who climbed into boats to escape the horrors that they faced in their homes. The Pilgrims started in two boats and had to turn back because one boat was too leaky. They crowded together in the Mayflower, which took longer than anyone expected to arrive. There were storms in their crossing, too. Conditions were bleak.

Then, with fortitude and determination they planted themselves in this new land so they could worship the way they wanted, so they could build a new life.

A third of those new arrivals died that first winter. (Read here for my thoughts on that.) There is no dispute that without the help of the Native Americans who were already here, none of them would have survived. We celebrate Thanksgiving as a feast to celebrate that collaboration of Indian and Pilgrim, or put another way, that generous help by Americans to newly arrived refugees.

You can probably guess where this biased writing is going next. I have known modern day refugees and immigrants. To a one, they are not people of whom we need to be afraid. They have told me their stories of fathers taken in the night, of friends murdered in the streets, of fear to sleep at night because of nighttime raids. They enter this country (after a lengthy screening process) because they cannot go home. They are desperate, needy but brave. I am saddened by those among us who are closing their hearts to these needs, by our country’s growing animosity to immigrants.

My daughter-in-law teaches at a charter school for refugees and immigrants. As you might imagine, the result of last week’s election was disturbing and terrifying for her students (and thus for her as well.) Will they send me away, Ms?

Sadly, her kids and their families have come from places where selfish and egotistical and intolerant leaders reigned. Having already witnessed torture and maiming and killing by those in authority in their homelands, they are of course disturbed (as I am) by the trends here toward intolerance and xenophobia.

One of Amelie’s students was forced, with his siblings, to stand against a wall in the Congo and watch his parents be killed. Now he lives here with relatives, has learned English and will graduate next year. P___ said this last week: “Miss, I want to invite Donald Trump to my house for dinner. I want him to sit down at our table and eat our food and see that we are good people. Then he would change his mind, Miss. I know he would.”

 Well, I am skeptical that P’s request is realistic. But I do believe that hearing stories around a table and eating together is powerful. It is the story of our first Thanksgiving- sharing a meal with people different than ourselves, the native-born sharing what they had with the newcomer.

I am guilty of hypocrisy as I write this-  I’m having dinner today with people just like myself. But how beautiful, and how first-thanksgiving-like, if all over our country today, Americans  were sitting down together with those who are newly arrived.    We could listen to each other, laugh.  We could celebrate together, different but the same.





This N.C. Wyeth painting has always been a favorite. I used it often in my classes on the day before Thanksgiving break. We’d review the history, and then I’d tell them to put themselves in the shoes of one of those pilgrims as they watched their only escape depart over the horizon. “Write what you’d be feeling,” I’d tell them, and kids did: terror and anger and fear and sadness. Longing. Stalwart resolution.

So here’s a refresher. Those one hundred passengers who we honor as forefathers started out two months late. By the time they set sail from Belgium, the Pilgrims and the other passengers had already been in cramped quarters in the uncomfortable hold of the Mayflower for a month and a half.   Sixty-six days later, they arrived at land, far off course. They had endured rough seas, horrible sea-sickness, and sparse provisions. They had expected to join other settlements, but instead they found only frozen land and an abandoned Wampanoag settlement. The men went ashore during the day to build dwellings and a stockade while the women waited on the ship. The cold, the damp, the snow and wintry winds, and meager portions combined to make them sick. And then sicker. In that first winter, ONE HALF of the people who had come on that ship with such high hopes of life in a new land were dead.

But here’s what grabs me in the story: the captain of the ship had contracted only to deliver them to the new world; the pilgrims had purchased one-way tickets.

Yet when he could finally in good conscience leave them (with only half of their number alive and barely a semblance of shelters,) the captain said; I will take back any one of you who wants to come. I will not charge you. You did not know it would be this hard; I will take you home.

But no one took him up on the offer.

And this brings me again to this picture.


What must they have thought as they watched that ship sail away into the blue water and sky?

It would have been some version of this:

I am here.
I have decided to stay.
God help me.

And so it is with all of our new venturings.

  • You say to your boss, I quit.
  • You say, moments after that final push in labor, hello to your tiny new child, and now, you can never not be a mother.
  • You say, I am moving; you pack belongings into a U-haul and change states.
  • You say, through your tears, at the grave, a last goodbye
  • You say, “Okay, we’ll take her” to the adoption agency.
  • You say “I do.”

You are in a new land.

One young friend is in the early stages of marriage, and like those Pilgrims, it feels like winter for them: there is cold and bleakness inside and all around; provisions and hope are low. They feel diseased; they wanted marriage to be something other than what it is. Truthfully, I am not sure what they would say if someone offered an escape. But for today they have said; I will stay here. Misery or not, I will stay.

Another friend, an adoptive parent, finds adoption harder than she imagined. Why does their child not respond to love? Will I ever find unfrozen land to plant seeds, make fruit and vegetables grow?

And that job that had so much promise? It has not been what you wanted; it is not what you expected. Along with those pilgrims, perhaps you are saying: the task is too hard, God asks too much.

Thanksgiving is of course a day to ponder what is good in our lives and say thank-you. We are too slow, too slack in thanks.

But today can also be a day of resolution, of stalwart digging in. Our forefathers could have left, turned back, gone home. But they endured, to our great gain.

So perhaps like them, our prayer today should also be:

I am here.
I will stay.
God help me.