I suppose this idea of Thanksgiving has gotten fairly complicated. I grew up in Massachusetts, in such close proximity to Plymouth Rock that I was well acquainted with the romantic version of the Thanksgiving story.
I imagined pilgrims and Native Americans sitting down at a large open-air picnic table eating everything from turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy to canned cranberries and my grandmother’s sweet potato casserole.
My wife and I were spending our first Thanksgiving in our own home. Having only been married since August, we were freshly invested in the work of creating our own family traditions. Our own extended families were states away so we decided to invite any of our friends who were alone on Thanksgiving to join our feast. Thanksgiving afternoon arrived and an eclectic group of friends began to show up.
In an attempt to be a great host, I wrote some discussion questions to stir conversation, as well as prepared a wonderfully well-crafted prayer to be spoken as our ‘grace’ for the evening meal. During the writing of that prayer I was struck by how difficult it was to conjure an authentic feeling of gratitude or thanksgiving. There were plenty of things to list, but few brought on the kind of inner sigh that happens when I connect to the deeply visceral reality that I would not be the same without them.
I wondered if everyone else at the table might be in the same boat when I asked the question, “What are you most thankful for today?”
My wife and friends stood around the table and I began to read my eloquent prayer. I paused for a moment to take in the smell of great food in the presence of good friends… everything was perfect. Somewhere in the middle of a beautifully poetic line that I can’t remember now, the doorbell rang. It was my wife’s pastor from the church she had grown up in on the outskirts of Erie, Pennsylvania. He was passing through town and had met up with another man he introduced as, William.
An unexpected guest
William stepped timidly through the door with a slight look of bewilderment on his face. He had dark skin and his clothes were a bit mismatched. When he spoke, it was with a strained kind of broken English. It was obvious he wasn’t from Tennessee, or The United States. I had once heard a respected friend say there should be room at the table for everyone. It was a fantastic idea really. But was it an idea that had to implicate me at my own table? As we sat down to eat, I couldn’t help feeling like this was one of those moments when my parents would be teaching me about kindness and would make me offer to inconvenience myself and get someone a drink, or to shovel a snowy driveway while I secretly hoped that no one would take me up on the offer but then someone does.
William sat down, and we all began to pass the food around and fill our plates. We ate and I started in on the questions I had prepared. We each took turns awkwardly describing the things we were thankful for, and finally the question passed to William.
An unfathomable trauma
William was from Rwanda. He was the editor of a very reputable magazine known for its presentation of political and social issues in the country. It was described as the equivalent to TIME magazine in the U.S. In 1994, generations of marginalization, tribal tension and political unrest exploded into a genocide causing the death of nearly one million Rwandan’s in less than 100 days. As the genocide was beginning, word got to William that he was to be assassinated.
William’s wife was pregnant and unable to travel quickly, so they had to stay and hide. William described the miracle of timing that occurred saying that if they had left with the rest of the family, they would have all been killed. Many of William’s extended family members were massacred as they tried to flee the violence and aggression. They finally made their way to the Kenyan border where William left his wife and children to seek asylum for his family in the United States. At the time of our Thanksgiving meal, William had been in the U.S. for just under six months, and he had not been able to talk to his wife or children since leaving them in Kenya.
There are many more details to the story, but for the sake of brevity, I will simply say that his story of loss and of pain left us profoundly sobered. When he finished talking there was a heavy silence. As everyone sat pondering the story that had been told, I offered two things. “Do you have a phone number to reach your family?” He had a number with him, but he was unsure if a call would get through so that he could talk to them. “This must be incredibly hard to be away from your family and to be without contact for so long,” I said. “How do you do it?”
An unshakeable faith
I will never forget his words. He sat more upright in his chair, looked across the table at me with confident and grace-filled eyes and spoke. “If you were to ask me about a computer, how it works, how to fix it, I would not be able to give you an answer because I do not know about computers. If I asked you about the provision of God, you would not be able to answer me because you do not know about how God works.“
He was right. Much like the old story of the Russian pastor who upon setting foot in an American grocery store falls to his knees and begins to weep because He recognizes that no one in that community would be able to know God’s provision and thus not know the character of God because of all their abundance, so the wind was knocked out of me by William’s answer.
A lasting friendship
That Thanksgiving evening I dialed a number, and then another number and another and handed the telephone to William. I heard a voice on the other end of the phone and saw a look of pure joy and gratitude fall on William’s face. I quietly stepped out of the room and let him talk to his wife and children. Over the years William became a friend. I had the privilege of helping his family make it to the United States. I sat and cheered as William gained his citizenship in the U.S. I traveled to the Genocide Museum in Rwanda and spent hours scouring the small plaques that held the names of the families who had been killed in the genocide until I found his family name.
Every year, even as Thanksgiving finds me taking for granted many of the gifts that matter in my life, the echo of William’s words and the gift of his presence at my Thanksgiving table remind me that there are so many things to be thankful for.