As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to have a greater and greater appreciation for that most American of holidays… Thanksgiving. It is remarkable, isn’t it? The coming together of friends and family, and the sharing of food and good stories. The joyous sense of hospitality.
And most of all, the ability to slow down for a moment and to be grateful for what you have.
My Thanksgiving tradition while growing up was to have a mid-day Thanksgiving feast at the house of Pastor Jim, the man who had baptized me when I came into the world. As the years passed he had rotated to other congregations, but we always gathered at his family’s home. Although they were an older couple, he and his wife had adopted two African-American children who were close in age to my brother and I, and growing up there were always shenanigans to get into, either indoors and out (the year we kids decided to act out a Kung Fu movie was particularly memorable). Plus, there was always an eclectic bunch at the Thanksgiving gatherings. Some were old friends and families that had accumulated over the years, but Pastor Jim’s family always insisted that any Thanksgiving “orphans” with nowhere else to go were not just welcome… they were expected. Friends of friends, coworkers, travelers… it didn’t matter. When these extra guests arrived at the door, it was thrown open with hugs around and can-I-get-you-anything? hospitality. It always struck me as a thoroughly American experience: Thanksgivings at their house were always the E Pluribus Unum variety.
One has always stood out for me.
It was years back in the 1990s, after my stepfather had passed away and my mom and I were very much in need of a good dash of hugs around and can-I-get-you-anything? hospitality. That year was a slightly smaller gathering for whatever reason, but there were special guests: a family from Japan.
The father was a scientist working at the University of Minnesota for the year. He and his wife didn’t speak a great deal of English, and their 5-year old son even less (although the boy wrote English flawlessly, and in better handwriting than I’ve ever possessed). One of the Thanksgiving regulars knew them, didn’t want them to be left alone with everything closed down, and brought them along for the festivities. I understand that initially, this family was vaguely intimidated when they arrived at the doorstep, knowing so few people there. Never mind—again, the door was thrown open with hugs around and can-I-get-you-anything? hospitality.
As Pastor Jim seated them the living room’s best chairs, the Japanese family explained that they were both honored and deeply excited to receive an invitation to a real American Thanksgiving, and to spend time with typical American families.
And I laugh… that year we were anything but typical. There were special needs children. People from several ethnic backgrounds. Same sex partners. Blue collar folks and white collar folks. Elders. Stand-alones. People from every kind of background. In the 1990s, we must have come off as a motley crew indeed—we were nothing like that famous Norman Rockwell painting. But for all our differences we were each of us greeted at the door with hugs around and can-I-get-you-anything? hospitality. In Pastor Jim’s family house, we were instantly considered close friends.
And indeed, I think it was that range of differences that made such a wonderful group. There was no pretension, no tribalism… just a sense that we were all fellow travelers on the road of life. And we appreciated that for a few short hours, we had a glorious rest stop together amidst the wonderful hospitality of Pastor Jim’s family.
When we collectively sang the blessing at the start of the meal, we were one family. Again, E Pluribus Unum.
The companionship continued throughout the day. After the table was cleared, Pastor Jim roused the assembly and we went on our traditional Thanksgiving Walk, with someone providing an extra coat for the Japanese scientist who was still unaccustomed to Minneapolis’s weather. There were stories and shared dreams, and our Japanese guests got a masterclass on making traditional Thanksgiving food. Later in the afternoon, the Japanese mother asked to make an announcement—with tears she explained that she had never experienced such exuberant hospitality, and while it was “unworthy payment,” she asked to perform a short concert as an expression of her gratitude. The Japanese family was Protestant, and she felt it was keeping in the spirit of our gathering to sing traditional church hymns for us… in Japanese. Someone went over to the piano to accompany her, and she brought down the house.
Years later, I still laugh—and honestly, get a little teary—as I remember that perfect moment of sharing, of hospitality, and thankfulness. Some of those at the gathering were old friends, some we would never meet again, but for that wonderful afternoon we eased each others’ burdens and became one family.
And for that I am profoundly thankful.
To all my readers, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. On this special day, I hope we can all take a moment to reflect on all we’re grateful for. And in this time of division and division, I hope we can take a lesson from the family of Pastor Jim and do more to greet each other…
…with hugs around, and can-I-get-you-anything? hospitality.