I am an immigrant who arrived in this country at the end of 2015. I was an immigrant once before, when I traveled from New Zealand to Great Britain: that began as a six month holiday, and 33 years later I was still there. Then four years ago I came to the United States; last month I had the honor of becoming a US citizen.
The process of becoming a citizen is a story in itself, involving much form filling, having one’s picture and fingerprints taken, and the sending of regular checks to the US immigration department. My final interview at USCIS in Philadelphia was thorough and contained many searching questions, including: “what is the color of your bedroom wall?” Fortunately, despite being male, I gave the right answer, or at least the same one as my wife, who was also interviewed.
Today I will be joining other Americans in celebrating Thanksgiving. For most of my life this annual celebration did not form part of my or my family’s experience or tradition. Its roots are in the American story which I have been learning, and which are now, remarkably, part of my own story. And since coming here I have, to my delight, discovered an ancestral connexion to this American story.
The origins of Thanksgiving are well known. In October 1621, the pilgrims who settled here celebrated their first Thanksgiving. Having crossed from England to America, they encountered many hardships and challenges, among them a bitterly cold winter, which they barely survived. Their survival was a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity, and to the providence of God.
Before the pilgrims arrived, some sailors in the early 1600s had ventured onto land and recorded their impressions which were published as travel adventures; some of these were read by those early pilgrims before they ventured across the sea. What motivated the pilgrims was a desire to discover a better world for themselves than the one they had left behind.
Their backstory is a part of church history. In the wake of the Reformation, new church sects sprung up across Europe and the British Isles; in England these new churches were frequently persecuted. To escape persecution, families set out for the New World, and found a country where it was possible to practice religion in freedom. And this is where my family connexion comes in – my great-great-great-great grandfather George Humphrys was born in South St, Philadelphia, in 1801. George’s parents were members of the Non-Conformist church in Birmingham, England, and moved to the United States in the late 18th century, after their chapel and a family home were destroyed by public riots.
When we tell the story of immigrants, and speak of Thanksgiving, we must also be mindful that there is another side to the story: the one seen from the eyes of the indigenous population. For them, the new immigrants were a mixed blessing, to say the least. Others have documented their history but I mention it in passing because their memory is not one that should be separated from our own.
It is true to say that the United States is founded on an idea of freedom. Certainly there is freedom of religion and freedom of speech – everything else flows from these two freedoms. Today we celebrate and give thanks for those freedoms, and thank God for blessing this land and its people.
Our world’s history is shaped by ideas – the idea of freedom lies at the heart of our Bible story, beginning with the exodus from Egypt, and continuing with the freedom from death through Jesus Christ. That last event is remembered every time we celebrate the Eucharist, which is a thanksgiving meal. At the Last Supper, Jesus blessed the bread and gave thanks and gave it to his disciples to eat, saying, “Do this to remember me.” It opened up the Passover remembrance to the new idea of salvation through Jesus Christ. Our repeating of this act of remembrance keeps it always before us, always in our mind.
It is ironic therefore, that the Church has adopted Thanksgiving as a special celebration when she has been doing it for nearly two thousand years. In our reading today Jesus says to his listeners “I am the bread of life.” Jesus is not only the freedom giver, but also the one who sustains us through himself. However you want to interpret that, there is no denying that our most basic needs and our deepest desires are satisfied by a life where we can receive Jesus.
Those first pilgrims were seeking a better life for themselves, and although we are no longer fleeing persecution, we are still pilgrims on a journey of faith, one which may take us to places unknown, and into situations where we will be tested. Behind our journeying there is the search for a better world, one which is within our grasp, if we receive Jesus and follow him faithfully all the days of our life.
Today we give thanks for all the blessings of our lives, for our families and Church, our friends and fellow travelers. Let us think of those who went before us, whose courage in facing adversity and whose faith are an inspiration for us all. Above all, let us give thanks for Jesus Christ, the lover of humankind, whose gift of himself is renewed every time we gather in his name.