Thursday, November 26, 2015

Foreigners, Refugees and Pilgrims

"A Table of Companionship"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Browsing through the social media today I keep coming across images of the “First Thanksgiving” in America. For the most part they depict well-dressed and well-fed Pilgrims sharing their abundance of food with hungry looking, scantily-clad Indians, “savages” invited to the Pilgrim feast. As I look at these “First Thanksgiving” pictures I usually “laugh out loud” because historically, they depict a scene that is ludicrously inaccurate. In fact, back when those Pilgrims first landed on the shores of “New England” the “tables were turned.”  It was the Indians who were the host of the feast. They were the ones sharing food with the sick and starving pilgrims.

Those first Pilgrims were “refugees” who fled to America to escape religious persecution back in their native England. They were foreigners who arrived uninvited on these shores, discovering when they got here that they didn’t have a clue how to survive the harsh “New England”  winters. The native “Indians” took pity on these refugees and welcomed them to their land- they gave them seeds that would grow, showed them how to build shelters to withstand the storms, provided medicine for their diseases, and shared their own food with them.  The Indians are the real heroes of the Thanksgiving feast.

Over the past months I am sometimes reduced to tears when I hear the hateful “neo-fascist”
rhetoric that so many people seem to be embracing in this land that I love. Many of my fellow citizens will sit down at a Thanksgiving table today and argue over what must be done to build  walls and devise laws to keep foreigners from coming to our shores. Many will affirm the merit of guarding against strangers living in our land, those people with odd-sounding names who belong to “alien” religions and are a potential threat to the national security.  It seems to me if the native Indians had those same kinds of conversations some 400 years ago there would likely be no Thanksgiving feast to celebrate in America today- in fact there probably wouldn’t even be an “America.”

We live in a time of labels, names, categories, walls and gates- me and my group living in fear of and protecting against all those different others. This kind of attitude put us all on such a slippery slope, much more dangerous to the future of this society than any terrorist threat.

The Islamic mystic and poet, Rumi, once wrote:

Move beyond any attachments to names.
Every war and every conflict between human beings has happened
because of some disagreement about names.
It’s such an unnecessary foolishness because just beyond the arguing
there’s a long table of companionship set
and waiting for us all to sit down.

Four hundred years ago, on board a ship that had just landed in Plymouth Harbor, John Winthrop gave a sermon to his flock of fellow pilgrims who were just about to come ashore as refugees in a strange new land.  He told his congregation:

We must delight in each other,
make others conditions are own,
rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together,
always having before our eyes
our community as members of the same body.

On this Thanksgiving Day I hold up this “pilgrim prayer” as a lens through which I hope all my fellow citizens might view this great country in which we live.

Many people today claim that they want to “take back their country,” to that time and place where it used to be – I couldn’t agree more. Ahh, for those good old days when native peoples compassionately embraced all those strange and different others –everyone sharing in the abundance.

Today is a day for all of us to sit at the long table of companionship waiting for us all.

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