A Thanksgiving Reflection

Perhaps the year 2020 has been on your mind of late -- because we SO enjoyed the presidential campaign and can't wait to spend another 18 months going through that! The year 2020 is on my mind today for a different reason. 2020 will mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the ship “Mayflower” in the region now known as New England.

Native American tribal leaders, human rights advocates, environmental justice advocates, and others have expressed concern about the way colonization may be celebrated.

As Unitarian Universalists, our heritage is particularly enmeshed with this issue. Several New England churches established during the 1600s continue today as Unitarian Universalist congregations, and Unitarian Universalists have had a role in developing this holiday known as “the American Thanksgiving Day.” And we are committed to peace and justice for all the world’s people.

Taking note of all this, the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly last June in Columbus, OH, adopted a resolution encouraging “all Unitarian Universalists to enter a time of education, careful reflection, and healing, during the years 2016-2021.” (see the full resolution: CLICK HERE; for more on the UU role in the Thanksgiving holiday: CLICK HERE.) The run-up to the quadricentennial of the Plymouth Rock landing is a particularly apt time to give special attention to the suffering, indignity, and loss that native peoples have suffered in the last 400 years.

As we seek to build a more just future, a more beloved and beloving community, we must be mindful of the past we share with others. To prepare for the future, we must make peace with our past – and better understand the people and the environment of the 1600s. The story of the Radical Reformation and the religious Dissenters and Separatists of the 1600s is part of our Unitarian Universalist story, and their influence is still with us. The story of indigenous peoples, including the Wampanoag Tribal Nation of Mashpee, Massachusetts, who first met the Pilgrims, and the story of their spiritual wisdom also needs our honor and respect. (Here's a start: CLICK HERE.)

The resolution asked for “all UU congregations across the United States of America to enter into dialogue with the local Native People in their areas about the Thanksgiving holiday and its history.” Here at Community UU in White Plains, NY, we have begun steps to connect with Lenape in our area, to learn from them their perspective and experience and how that can better inform our understanding of this Thanksgiving holiday.

Truth and reconciliation for all Americans, including those who were here before it was called America, requires this dialog, grounded for us in our Unitarian Universalist recognition that we are part of an interdependent web of all existence.

And so we celebrate harvest – the bounty of the earth that sustains us. Most of us grew up with a romanticized picture of the first Thanksgiving, and that’s not an altogether bad thing. We can correct for the inaccuracies of how we have recounted the past while holding on to the vision of cooperation and good will across cultural difference. The past wasn't really like the picture we learned as children of intercultural harmony between the Pilgrims and Native Americans at the First Thanksgiving. That picture of the past is a fantasy. Perhaps the future can make it a reality.

The creation of Thanksgiving involved influences from Native American people, influences from colonist Pilgrims, influences from the Jewish Sukkot festival -- and others. The meaning of Thanksgiving continues to be shaped by the encounter of people of different cultures. It takes all of us -- those who can trace their ancestry to the Plymouth Rock Pilgrims of 1620, those whose ancestors lived in this part of the world for many centuries before 1620, and those who arrived here, with or without documentation, from foreign shores just in the last few years, and everybody in-between. It takes first-generation Americans, 2nd-generation Americans, 16th-generation, and 160th-generation Americans to embody what it means to be American and to be thankful together.

In our harvest celebration of cornbread and cider, let us be reminded of the vision of radical hospitality, where we all have a seat at the welcome table.

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