Let me take you by the hand for a moment, back, back, back, to a time when you as a child began awakening to the big, big stories of where we come from, who we are, and where we might be going.
Let me take you back, say, to second grade, the year that traditionally includes a class unit on the solar system, and another unit on the age of the dinosaurs roaming the earth. Learning about planets and Triceratops turns the second grade you into an explorer. There is no end to what you can discover. Your life now belongs to something storied, boundless. A great horizon, stretching from past to future, from here to beyond, opens inside you. The thrill of it travels through you like wires of light.
Back when I was in second grade, that year of the solar system and the age of dinosaurs, my teacher also introduced us to another sort of story, one meant to express where we come from as a nation, who we are, and where we are going. She told us about the “first Thanksgiving” in 1621, the one where members of the Wampanoag nation and the decimated band of Mayflower Pilgrims sat down to eat a harvest meal together. I learned that the Pilgrims would have starved were it not for the kindness of Wampanoag “Indians,” and of Squanto, who taught them how to raise corn, extract sap from maple trees, fish, and avoid poisonous plants. I learned that people gave thanks by eating a meal together. In the classroom, we made feathered headdresses and Pilgrim hats. I think we even brought food to the classroom to share in our reenactment. Pumpkin pie, perhaps? The first Thanksgiving was not over. We could be there too.
My second-grade heart beamed with such a vision for life. On that first Thanksgiving, danger had been overcome. Two peoples gathered around a feast of gifts freely given and gratefully received. All was harmony, all was friendship.
So inspired was I by the story that I set out to create a tableau of the First Thanksgiving in the front hall of our home, a massive wall mural of Indians and Pilgrims eating together. When the aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents showed for turkey dinner that year, they were greeted by my mural and its very excited, oh so proud, 7-year-old creator.
In second grade, I thought I was learning history, one with heroes and happy endings. I was not. I did not know that the generosity of Native people toward these immigrants was more complicated than that. The harmony narrated between them and the Puritans was a beautiful blink of the eye relative to centuries of violence and betrayal, as a new nation stole the continent from the indigenous nations.
The second grader was not learning much history, but she was learning something else; something she could feel, something she had to turn into her first mural. She could feel the Pilgrims’ overwhelming gratitude after overwhelming grief, and their native hosts’ kindness towards starving, desperate immigrants. She could feel the giving and the receiving like an electrical current connecting people. She could feel an arc through space and time connecting her family’s Thanksgiving meal with everyone else’s, where the land is abundant and we all belong at the table. All of these things, felt more than known, began forming in her a picture, a horizon, of what life might be, of what life should be, and for which she yearned.
She also did not know that Thanksgiving only became a national holiday 242 years later, by proclamation of Abraham Lincoln. It was 1863, the same year Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, in the bloodbathed midst of the Civil War.
So much else, so much hard and heartbreaking history, she did not know.
In second grade, I thought I was learning history, one with heroes and happy endings. I was however learning something else. Not history as such, but horizon. Not history, but hope.
In 1863, any horizon of hope would have been hard to see. Since 1861, a large segment of the country had refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the nation’s elected president. The United States of America had become the Divided States of America.
When you think about our country these days, it is hard not to see parallels. Alarming divisions are cutting into the flesh of this country. We keep reckoning, and failing to reckon, with the violent legacy of racial oppression. We keep reckoning, and failing to reckon, with the fruit of our exploitation of the land and water we claimed as our own. Can these Divided States of America be united in a common vision of the common good?
Perhaps this is why Abraham Lincoln introduced a Day of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, with no national symbols, in the midst of civil war. Lincoln knew he could not change history or end the divisions that started the war. Thanksgiving could, however, open a wider horizon, a horizon of the harvest meal, where there is enough for everyone and we all belong at the table. A horizon. Of hope.
Let us now, then, take each other by the hand this Thanksgiving, 7-year-olds and 70-year-olds alike. Let us not pretend that the wounds of this nation are anything but grievous, even deadly. Nor let us allow those wounds to make us so small with fear and anger that they steal from us the great horizon, the one small enough for our own familiar tables and large enough for everyone. Let us still make murals of the stories we can tell each other, even now, which point us to the gratitude which is the deep economy of all life, and the harmony which hums when food is shared, when thanks is given.
Kristin Foster is an ELCA pastor, retired from three decades of ministry to the Iron Range. She lives with her husband Frank Davis on an old Swede-Finn farmstead outside Cook.