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On encounters at Thanksgiving

Pumpkins Photo: Pumpkins / Life Pilgrim

Today people are traveling across the United States to make their way to the homes of loved ones to share food and celebrate Thanksgiving. Sometimes these encounters will be joyful, and sometimes they will be strained.

The original Thanksgiving is most often portrayed as a happy, uncomplicated meal between colonial Europeans and the Wampanoag, the People of the First Light. The story told by the Wampanoags is pretty different, an early encounter in a relationship that was devastating for them.

The Pilgrims had just completed their first harvest and sent out men bearing guns to catch “fowl” for a feast. Hearing so much gun fire, the Wampanoag thought the Pilgrims were in danger, and Massosoit led his people to come to their aid. When the Wampanoag arrived, only then did the Pilgrims invite them to join the feast, but they didn’t have enough food to feed all of them. The Wampanoag brought five deer as gifts, and the feasting lasted for three days.

The Wampanoags and other Native Americans call Thanksgiving a day of mourning. Wamsutta (Frank) James says about the Wampanoag welcoming the Pilgrims, “This action… was perhaps our biggest mistake. We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end.”

The strains of that original meal continue still, and the healing, the restitution, to mend those original broken relationships are still urgently needed. The strains of such a legacy can be felt in our relationships with one another now, and they sometimes show up in the meals we share this week.

Encounters, exchanges, over meals can result, like the first Thanksgiving, in patterns of domination and betrayal, or they can lead to connections and understanding that change hearts.

I have a European-American Quaker friend, a lesbian, who felt hurt for a long time because of the way that others didn’t stand by her as an ally, understand her pain, and support her in challenging homophobia. But one day she thought, “Hmm, am I being a good ally? How am I supporting other people who are hurting because of the way people view them?”

That moment shifted her perspective entirely, and she became focused on working to undo racism, and in the process of working to become an ally, she encountered many willing to stand with her as well. She understood that the work of becoming more fully human is all our work and in order to do it with a full heart, it’s important to understand other people’s pain and not just your own.

Several activists within AFSC discovered this recently on a trip to Warsaw, Poland, to attend the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates. They learned from Peace Laureates, from people participating in the Civic Academy, and from one another as they came together from across AFSC’s regions and programs. 

One encounter stood out as leaders from across AFSC spent time together and shared their work for change. Wahid from Baltimore shared a way his perspective shifted at the conference:

“During these nights out we actually started to delve deep into one another’s lives, and began to really develop bonds. For a perfect example I was raised in prison which is a pretty anti-gay environment, but I began to bond and develop a friendship with a brother from Indonesia who happens to be bi-sexual. At one time to be 100% honest, I wouldn’t even have said a word to him, but it felt like being the minority in Poland, and not knowing anybody, really brought us all together. I barely made it to Poland due to my being on parole, but the experience was well worth the struggle to get there. To put this in a nut shell, this was the most nurturing experience for my personal development in a long time.”

This Thanksgiving, what kind of encounter will you have as you gather with loved ones? I invite you to remember the Wampanoag version of the story of the first Thanksgiving, the broken promises waiting to be fulfilled. In remembering that story, I hope you will be open to exchanges like the one that Wahid had in Poland, a time that changes you, that opens your heart, that helps you to understand how peace might really be possible. Connecting with the pain and humanity of others is often the first step.

What stories do you have about encounters that changed your heart?

P.S. Food can be an excellent vehicle for sharing and understanding. AFSC has published a new cookbook, Peaceful Eats, with many tasty dishes from our staff around the world. Take a look, download it for free. 

About the Author

Lucy was the Director of Friends Relations from 2011-2021. 

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