Punished for sharing Thanksgiving
We invited neighbors to share Thanksgiving with us last November. That’s what neighbors do. They share. They share smiles and greetings. They share rides, kids’ outgrown clothes, cookies and garden vegetables.
In America, they share Thanksgiving.
We were excited to include new Americans in our legacy of giving thanks and sharing a meal. Our neighbors gladly participated. Some in town reacted differently. A local pulpit swiftly denounced us for sharing a Thanksgiving prayer with neighbors of a different language and culture.
For 25 years we have directed Hope House, an outreach of neighborhood support. Our Family Support Center is a welcoming place to refugees from war-torn countries who are settling in our city. They are a big help as volunteers at our center.
We have long sponsored community dinners. What caught the attention of townsfolk this time was that the Somali word for God — “Allah” — and the English word — “God” — were used in the mealtime prayer. It somehow made local news.
Eyebrows were raised. Verbal rocks started flying from one area church. Statements were made in four services, and on its website, that our prayer was un-Christian, that Muslims and Christians cannot pray together and that we were wrong to do so. Leadership portrayed us as having prayed to a false god, though we assured them our prayer was to the same God to whom we have always prayed.
Church leaders referred to “the recent newspaper article concerning praying to Allah,” but that Nov. 24 article titled “Hope House feeds neighbors” was about much more. It described the positive relationships being forged among the diverse families who attend the center’s activities. “We wanted to be with friends,” one mom said, explaining why her family wanted to attend the center’s meal. The article emphasized, “Everyone is welcome.”
In a letter to the newspaper, clarifying the use of “Allah” in our Thanksgiving prayer, we had written: “Arabic translations of the Bible use ‘Allah’ for ‘God,’ and Christians in the Arab world today, along with Muslims, pray to Allah.” We noted that if our neighbors spoke Spanish, “Dios” might have been used.
Church leaders remained unsatisfied.
What was the underlying reason church leaders punished and misrepresented us?
Were their declarations a smokescreen?
The sheer force of their unusual actions seemed surreal. Child molesters in their midst have not prompted such misuse of the pulpit. We sat in one service where leadership warned about the dangers of our prayer. We observed their out-of-character, intimidating manner, followed by strong assent from many in the congregation. It was eerie. And it was a light-bulb moment for us. We could smell the fear. Old friends, acting like they didn’t know us any more, branded us as dangerous. We sat there, helpless ... our new friends, and their faith, being misjudged.
Could we keep quiet? The silence of people of conscience has enabled injustice throughout America’s history.
It enabled taking land from those already here, leaving them what wasn’t wanted. It enabled consistently treating newcomers with suspicion, especially when we didn’t like where they’d come from. It enabled slavery. It enabled human rights violations based on gender, color, or status.
It enabled witch hunts, criminalizing Americans based on politics and herding Americans into internment camps due to misplaced fear. Now it’s enabling a knee-jerk reaction to a Thanksgiving prayer of Christian and Muslim neighbors. Again, not our country’s finest moment ... but the story is not over.
Justice eventually prevails. People of peace speak out and, little by little, hearts change. Women now vote. People can sit where they want on a bus. Families can live in the neighborhoods they choose. Would reactions have been different had the church leaders attended our Thanksgiving? Perhaps.
The more we get to know our new neighbors, the more we love them. We now wonder how we could ever have felt afraid. But at one time we did, because we just didn’t know.
Now, we hug. We share stories, backyard barbecues, birthday parties and things that neighbors share. We love the music, dancing and delicious sambusa alongside the turkey at Thanksgiving meals. We love the energy and spice that our new friends bring to the table.
Throughout America’s history, as tides of ignorance and fear threaten to sweep us off course, our anchor is that we believe God created us all equal. Embracing this truth enables us to respect each other, with all our differences.
We are a people freed from fear, and freed to love.
Since the first Thanksgiving, sharing with neighbors of other cultures has been an American tradition, even a Christian Pilgrim one. Jesus Christ’s teachings, respected by both Christians and Muslims, direct us to love God and our neighbor.
As the Pilgrims discovered, it gets us all through rough winters. And it sure makes meals a lot more fun.
Bruce and Jan Willson are founders and directors of Hope House in Lewiston, a Christian, pro-life ministry to needy families.