How do I explain the American celebration of Thanksgiving to my international friends? I begin by telling them it’s a celebration of God’s provision of a harvest in the “New World.” It was a time of gratitude shared between the Native American Indian “hosts” and the European settler “guests.” The Native American Indians who had known the land and climate for generations upon generations taught these newcomers how to grow crops in this unknown land, not as a side hobby but as a matter of survival for them.
Then I hesitate and wonder if I should say more. As I speak, in my mind’s eye, I can see some iconic image—maybe an old painting of pilgrims in high top hats, frilly shirts, and oversized buckles sitting beside Indians with feathers and fringes at a table covered with a Betty Crocker spread of a steaming, sweet, savory, sumptuous supper (with an oversized turkey for a centerpiece). Can you see it?
It is good for us to dwell on happy images and feel thankful at this time of year, and I want my international friends to know this value. Yet it would be dishonest of me not to acknowledge the truer story . . . the story of why Europeans and Native Americans don’t still gather around tables together to reenact the idyllic scene.
The Real Story
And so I go on to say that though a mutual honor and respect in nation-to-nation agreements existed when European settlers first began arriving in the Americas, the vast continent was plundered by the settlers. They came seeking a new life, religious freedom, an opportunity to build wealth. But many wrongly perceived those with brown skin as unintelligent savages who were in the way. And so a genocide swept the North American continent, leaving only small remnants of the indigenous people who hold to the ancient traditions, reciprocity with the land, and community values. We have never recovered from this travesty. (Read more about our colonial history here.)
Earlier this year, I was a guest at a gathering of Native American Christian theologians and community activists. The leaders were dressed regally in their eagle feather headdresses, draped in garments beautifully fringed and ornamented with colored beads set meticulously in patterns that tell stories. I’ll never forget the profound words of a Native Hawaiian man. My ears were particularly alert to his words because I am currently living in the land of his people, and I want to live in the way that honors the Creator and the people of the land. He said:
“It’s important to learn how to be a good guest because when you receive well, you give well. When you are a good guest, blessings come. When you are a good host, you don’t introduce bad guests to others.”
Being a Good Guest
Hawaiians have a particularly special gift of hospitality, which many visitors refer to as the “aloha spirit.” I believe that it is not only the warm sun, swaying palms, and rhythmic tides of the crystal oceans that draw visitors back to the islands, but this spirit of hospitality. On my first trip to Maui, my friend and I were guests at a hula class at an inner-city church where one of the aunties (the term of honor for any wise woman in Hawai‘i, and “uncle” for any wise man) invited us to attend her grandson’s high school graduation party. I was surprised by this warm invitation. Seeing the surprise in my face she said, “You’re ‘ohana [family] now, so please come to the party!” Honored by her invitation after meeting us only once, and even more by being welcomed into her family, we joined the celebration a couple of days later with about 200 family members.
As a guest in the land of the Hawaiian people, I recognize I have a lot to learn from them. They host their guests just as an owner hosts guests in his or her house. As I seek to respect and honor, I will be blessed in the land. Since I have received good things, I will seek to only invite others who will also honor, respect, and live in a good way in the land. I desire to extend this kind of hospitality to international student guests.
Yet my people have not been good guests in Hawai‘i or the United States. Why? Did we forget to thank the Creator for giving us life and all that is good to enjoy? Empty of gratitude, we gave into greed and took more than our hosts desired to give. We coveted and killed to get what we wanted or believed we needed.
Being a Good Host
It is hard at this festive Thanksgiving feast, when someone is passing the gravy and cranberry sauce, to remember such things. It is hard to tell my visiting friends from China, Japan, and Korea the undoctored truth of our nation’s history. How much easier it would be to stop at the iconic picture of pilgrims and Indians, share what we’re thankful for, and then break out the pumpkin pie! But if I did this, would I be a good host?
So I take a deep breath and tell the whole story as I know it. I acknowledge that we have a lot to heal from in our nation’s blood-streaked history. And I share my gratitude for grace—grace that brought our God from heaven to earth, cradle to grave, and in resurrection power gave us hope for a new life. But not just for life in heaven—it’s also for a life that makes the things we touch on earth “as it is in heaven.”
At Thanksgiving we are guests at God’s table of healing and grace. As good guests, we receive his grace and forgiveness and carry it out into the world to be agents of healing, even in the places where we have brought the brokenness.
And we begin by telling the true story.
- This Thanksgiving, consider the things you take for granted or feel entitled to. Turn this to gratitude and praise to God the Creator and Provider.
- If you have international friends, invite them to be a guest at your Thanksgiving dinner table and welcome them to bring a dish from their country.
- Do some research to learn about the Native American tribes who once lived or continue to live in your community. How can you be a good guest in the land they have been stewarding for generations?
- Share with friends or family around the Thanksgiving table what you have learned about the Native American communities near you. Consider together ways to establish respectful relationships.
My blog was first published on the official blog of InterVarsity/USA. It is shared here with permission.