WELCOME THE STRANGER
Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?
This line from the Broadway musical Hamilton always comes to mind around this time of retelling the Thanksgiving myth.
What is the real story?
The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe lived on and cultivated what is now known as Massachusetts and Rhode Island long before the late 1500s, when the first European settlers arrived ashore, bringing with them smallpox and Bubonic plague that wiped out ⅓ of the Wampanoag. An estimated 45,000 members of the tribe had perished by the time the Mayflower arrived in 1620.
Thousands of others had been kidnapped and sold into the European slave trade, and other tribal conflicts threatened what remained of the Wampanoag tribe.
The first Thanksgiving meal honored a treaty that had been negotiated between the Wampanoag’s Chief Ousamequin, at a great disadvantage for the Native tribe.
Contrary to the Thanksgiving myth I learned in school, friendliness does not account for the alliance the Wampanoag tribe made with the nascent Plymouth settlement. The Wampanoags had an internal politics all their own; its dynamics had been shaped by many years of tense interaction with Europeans, and by deadly plagues that ravaged the tribe’s home region as the pace of English exploration accelerated. Chief Ousamequin faced stiff opposition from his own people as he tried to manage the English newcomers and looked for ways to survive the forces of colonization already tearing them apart.
The so-called first Thanksgiving was the fruit of a political decision on Ousamequin’s part. Violent power politics played a much more important role in shaping the Wampanoag-English alliance than the famous feast. At least in the short term, Ousamequin’s league with the newcomers was the right gamble, insofar as the English helped to fend off the rival Narragansetts and uphold Ousamequin’s authority. In the long term, however, it was a grave miscalculation. Plymouth and the other New England colonies would soon go on to conquer Ousamequin’s people, just as the Wampanoags who opposed the Pilgrims feared that they would.
Today, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe awaits the justice department to formally revoke an appeal by the Trump administration to reclaim their land and dissolve their tribal claim. On this 400th anniversary of the day U.S. Presidents call the first Thanksgiving, The People of First Light continue to await full legal claim to their tribal land.
The traditional narrative of Thanksgiving only scaffolds a construction of white savior folklore, built over the last century and a half to avoid the reality that we live our lives, make our fortunes and birth generations upon stolen land. Quite a few well-known, well-heeled Unitarian families can be traced back to the Mayflower’s passenger manifest. Some members of UUCA can trace their ancestors back to slaves who were stolen from their native land and forcibly taken to America for sale. Others of us have ancestors who owned slaves, and built ancestral wealth upon their labor we now stand to inherit. What does this mean for us?
This doesn’t really mean we are all family, though that sounds nice.
It means that in one sense, we are all strangers.
And how do we welcome the stranger?
That is the central question for us today.
If Gregory and Travis McMichael and William Bryan understood how to treat a stranger, a 25 year-old local college student born and raised in Brunswick Georgia named Ahmaud Arbery would still be alive.
If we understood how to treat a stranger Bianca Bankz might still be alive.
Tyianna Alexander might be alive today.
Sophia Vasquez would still be alive.
Serenity Hollis might still be alive, and all the other transgender people who were murdered this year here in Georgia and beyond. They might all be here still, living, loving, creating the Kingdom of Love on Earth if only we knew how to welcome the Stranger.
There is evidence that in the first century when the Jesus people gathered, they gathered at table fellowship. They created their liturgy around a ceremonial Shabbat meal during a time when breaking bread signified more than simply eating, it was an act of hospitality, saying that you are clean and pure enough to sit at this table. You are holy and beloved and you are no longer an outcast.
One of the radical acts of this table fellowship was the company Jesus kept. He ate with “tax collectors and sinners.” Because of their “treacherous” trade-in taking money from the Jews for their evil Roman overlords, tax collectors were considered to be on the lowest rung of society. Respectable Jewish society, by definition, would never associate with such, and the tax collectors were left to find their friends among society’s rejects. In Luke 19, Jesus eats with Zacchaeus, “the chief tax collector — something like the region’s number one sinner.
Beyond this, there were the connotations of dining together. Here there are layers of implications, most notably the Jewish food laws. Israel was given very clear guidelines regarding food that was clean and unclean, and by extension, these served as important identifying markers of those people who belonged to God.
Moreover, dining was implied a certain social bond. Dining together was a kind of intimacy.
And so meals were not to be regarded lightly. Dining with someone had certain unavoidable social connotations.
It was in this kind of social understanding that Jesus just did not fit. He was not careful enough socially. His eating habits fell far short of expected standards. It seemed he would eat with anyone. Indeed, he seemed to enjoy it! And in doing so he pushed the limits of social respectability and even of what was considered to be biblical godliness. And in all this, he gained a reputation.
While we know of the stories of Jesus eating with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners, other stories of radical welcome, we chose to focus on feeding the 5000 because these human narratives of who is in and who is out are so often connected to falsehoods of scarcity and abundance.
The first American people survived on completely different terms from the white settlers.
Native Americans’ theology led them to perceive newcomers as an advantage or a resource, if they could teach fellow people to cultivate the land, fish, and hunt for food, then they could contribute to the shared project of communal survival.
The settlers, on the other hand, brought a colonizers ethos of manifest destiny and prosperity gospel, believing that all land was future property, that God willed European advantage over other races, and it was their God-given right, no duty, to take the land and all of its resources, including its people, for themselves.
It’s been 400 years since the First Thanksgiving meal allegedly took place, according to the journal of pilgrims William Bedford and Edward Winslow.
It is time for a new narrative.
I actually love Thanksgiving.
There is something beautiful about a secular holiday devoted to gratitude and indigenous foodways. Eating the food of this native land, what indigenous Americans call the three sisters: rice, corn, and beans. After 20 months of scarcity, fear, and isolation, it’s no wonder we are ready to throw open the doors, pull out all the stops and celebrate abundance!
This is what abundance really means:
The Department of the Interior recognizes the Wampanoag’s land and pays reparations to the ancestors of those who cultivated the land the European settlers stole. Governments and institutions continue to pay reparations to ancestors of slaves and Native Americans.
Instead of expecting life to be all you can eat buffet,
We cultivate the land and her resources responsibly, in a way that truly offers all we all can eat.
We don’t have to choose between feast or famine. We can simply all have enough, and be grateful.
I’ve spent some time in our building lately. In some ways, it will immediately be insufficient. You’ll be looking for something you were used to seeing in our last building, and you won’t find it. I don’t know what it is, but I know it will happen to you.
Do you know what this building has in abundance?
Not everything we want, but it has everything we need.
A kitchen, so that we might join the effort to feed the hungry and homeless in Atlanta.
A shower, so we might take in a refugee and offer a safe harbor.
Enough land for a garden, so we might grow food for our new neighbors.
Enough space, so we can all gather safely in a post-pandemic world.
The beauty of that new campus is that we will all be equally disoriented. For a magical short time, we will all be strangers there, finding our way home.
You won’t have a favorite seat yet. You won’t have laid claim to a particular parking spot or corner of the social hall to hold court.
Every part of that campus will be new to everyone. Longtime member, most generous benefactor, board president, first-time visitor.
We will all be strangers.
How do you want to be welcomed?
With open arms. With a warm smile, glowing like a hearth, inviting you to come sit by me, telling you that you have found a place to belong.
Let’s do that in every way we can as we emerge from pandemic. Let’s find ways to keep a place at the table for each other, whether we are friends or strangers.
This is easier said than done.
This kind of radical welcome requires trust, and if we have learned anything from the First Thanksgiving, it’s that trust can leave you burned, decimated, fragile. Even Judas had sat and broken bread with Jesus many times.
But trust in each other is a hallmark of our faith. We need not think alike to love alike. Isn’t that what that means?
We can treat each other as strangers, which means offering each other all the abundance we have found.
That’s the hardest thing. To treat every stranger as though they are precious. As though we need each other to survive.
Would our Wonderful Wednesday meal be more wonderful if we shared it with the hungry and homeless in our community?
We need a recovery of the spiritual significance of what we eat, where we eat, and with whom.
A table where all who feel broken, or alone, or unwelcomed find connection and belonging.
Maybe Food is God’s love language.
Your plate is waiting.