By the Rev. James M. Bimbi.
In the fall of 1620, a group of refugees called Pilgrims set sail from England on a journey to North America. Some were fleeing political and religious persecution, and others were looking for economic opportunities in a new land. The trip across the Atlantic Ocean was dangerous as they battled storms, disease, and death, only to arrive far from their intended destination. They had hoped to sail up the Hudson River, but instead they landed 200 miles to the north.
Their timing was not particularly good either, having dropped anchor at the start of winter with few provisions left onboard for their survival. If some of their party hadn’t gone ashore and stolen corn from the Native Americans, they probably wouldn’t have made it until the next spring. In fact, approximately half of the 102 passengers and half of the ship’s crew died before the month
of April 1621.
The 53 pilgrims who remained might not have lived to tell their story if it weren’t for the Wampanoag, one of the tribal nations of native peoples who had inhabited the continent for 15 centuries. The Wampanoag, which means People of the First Light, consisted of 40,000 people in 67 villages. The odds for 53 outsiders with nothing against 40,000 with plentiful resources were not very
good, unless the 40,000 were welcoming and generous. We are told that the People of the First Light taught the Pilgrims how to hunt the native animals and cultivate corn, beans, and squash. When it was time for the harvest in the fall of 1621, a three-day celebration was held at which both the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims sat down to share the bounty of the land.
That first Thanksgiving was as much about different peoples having respect for one another as it was about the food. Think about it. People from vastly different cultures and heritage — the many with ancient ties to the land and the few who had only recently arrived — people with different world views and languages, all feasting in fellowship while they passed the bowls of sweet potatoes and squash.
It has been 398 years since that fateful Thanksgiving celebration was made possible by the willingness of the Wampanoag to make space in their land for those struggling to find their place in the world. We might rightly ask ourselves who will be the People of the First Light to those who come to these shores in our own day? Who will be the ones to welcome the stranger, to feed the hungry,
to include the other in the feast?
That question is answered for us as we recall that Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world” (Mt. 5:14), and Saint Paul reminded the Thessalonians and the Ephesians that they were all “children of light” (1 Thess. 5:5 and Eph. 5:8). As followers of Jesus Christ, the “true light” that has “come into the world” (Jn. 1:9), it is ingrained in us to be people who welcome, feed, and include others. To use a common phrase, we are called to be a shining example of God’s love and care for all peoples.
Unless we are Native Americans, a part of the story of our lives is that we have come to dwell in this nation from another land, or are descendants of those who did. My own grandfather arrived from Italy in the late 1800s. Like many immigrants of that era, his first glimpse of America was quite possibly the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. The Jewish American poet Emma Lazarus perceived the statue, with its lamp held high, as a beacon to the world. Inspired by its symbolism, she wrote a poem, the words of which are carved on its pedestal. In the poem, in which she named
the statue the Mother of Exiles, she captured what the statue came to mean to the millions who migrated to the United States seeking freedom, and who continue to come to this day. The poem ends with the famous words:
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-tost to me, I lift my
lamp beside the golden door!
Just as Moses reminded the people of Israel before they crossed the Jordan River to enter a new land, we were once a wandering people. We are to remember where we have come from and how far God has led us. Thanksgiving Day is the occasion to recall the best of who we are and aspire to be, of the depth of our nation’s values of welcoming, of offering assistance from our abundance,
of accepting people different from ourselves, and doing it all with gratitude. We are to remember when we had little and when we had an abundance. We are to remember what the Lord God requires, that we take some of the first fruits of the ground – not the second or the third, but the first – and set it down before the altar of God.
And there, at the altar of God we offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, as a holy and living sacrifice of our lives in the most sacred act of thanksgiving in all of God’s creation. It is in the most real way the Great Thanksgiving of our lives and our faith; to give thanks with the best that we have; to give thanks with a grateful and loving heart; to give thanks expecting nothing in return but
only to have pleased God in our own day. Jesus said, “Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand — shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.” (Mt. 5:16, The Message)
The Rev. James M. Bimbi is the diocesan liturgical officer and a retired priest in the Episcopal Church in Delaware. Bimbi is also the current president of the North American Committee for St. George’s College in Jerusalem. firstname.lastname@example.org