on Monday, November 25, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer
as part of the Tri-City Interfaith Council’s annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Good evening. Thank you for being here tonight. Some of you ventured out alone. Thank you for being here. Some of you came as families. Thank you for being here. Some of you are part of a group – a youth group or something like that. Thank you for being here.
Thank you all for being here. Your presence is a blessing.
I’m Jeffrey Spencer. I am the Senior Pastor and Niles Discovery Church, which is a Protestant Christian Church. I also serve this year as President of the Tri-City Interfaith Council and I am honored to be here offering this reflection.
Before I started working on tonight’s reflection, I would have eagerly told you that Thanksgiving is my favorite civic holiday. Most of the other civic holidays celebrate war and violence (usually indirectly, but still, they celebrate war and violence), or they are civic versions of religious (that is to say, Christian) holy-days, and I’m a little resistance to the government coopting my religion.
I suppose New Year’s Day is an exception, too. It’s a civic holiday that marks – I’m not sure what … the need for recovery after too much partying the night before?
I like Thanksgiving because it focuses on giving thanks. It resists commercialism … for a day. Black Friday soon follows. Still, for one day, commercialism is resisted. By focusing on giving thanks, this holiday encourages us all to a practice that I find to be a deeply spiritual and that can be practiced by people who have no faith or spiritual tradition just as easily as those of us who do. Giving thanks is a truly universal practice.
My problems with the civic Thanksgiving holiday started when I realized that what I had been taught about it in grade school was fabrication and lies. This is how the myth that I was taught goes:
A ship called the Mayflower brought a group of people called “Pilgrims” to North America. They came (a little indirectly) from Plymouth, England, in 1620. They were seeking religious freedom. They got off their boat in a place that is now called Plymouth, Massachusetts, where they set up a colony. That first winter was filled with hardship, disease, and death. Had it not been for the kindness of some “Indians” – that’s the word that was used when I was taught these lies – these Pilgrims would have died. After surviving that winter, learning to plant and gather food that spring and summer, they had a successful harvest and they decided to give thanks. They decided a feast was in order, so they invited the “Indians” who had helped them, and everybody ate too much and played various games. It was an amazingly wonderful, intercultural, deeply peaceful time. And that’s why we gather in late November each year with our families and friends and eat too much and have a joyous time as we offer thanks.
It’s a wonderful story.
And very little of it is accurate.
Yes, there was a group of people who left Plymouth, England, seeking to settle in the Americas. They were actually heading to the Jamestown settlement in what is now called Virginia, but a storm blew them way off course, and they ended up much farther north. They were not seeking to create a community that embraced religious freedom for everyone. They were wanted to create a community where they were free to believe what they believed and to worship the way they wanted. In fact, they didn’t call themselves Pilgrims. They called themselves Separatists. They wanted to separate from the Church of England and worship God the way they thought was correct.
They did create their little colony near where they landed, that’s true. And it’s true that if they hadn’t been helped, they might have all died that first winter. The people that helped them, however, were not Indians. These Separatist colonizers were about 7,000 miles from the nearest Indian. The people who helped them were from one of the communities of people who already lived on this continent. In particular, they were Wampanoag people.
The Wampanoag did help these colonizers learn how to survive in this land. And there was a feast at the harvest after that first summer. And members of the Wampanoag nation were there. However, there is no evidence that an invitation was extended to them – only evidence that they were present. There also isn’t any evidence that the Separatists held the feast as a thanksgiving. That word isn’t used in the surviving journals, nor any word like it.
The record does indicate that the Separatists did hold a thanksgiving day, but that wasn’t for another 16 years. And it came after they a massacre of Pequot village, the culmination of a war with the Pequot people. Remember that thing I said about Thanksgiving being a civic holiday that didn’t celebrate war? Never mind.
If you know your history of the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, you know it didn’t happen until 1863. President Abraham Lincoln made it an official holiday and his goal was to find a way to heal the nation that was divided in the Civil War. That holiday had nothing to do with the so-called “Pilgrims” and so-called “Indians” I was taught about and it all too often still taught about in American schools. The myth we are taught actually didn’t take hold until around 1920. And it came about in response to immigration.
Those who were established and in power in the United States got anxious about the wave of immigration from Europe. The response was to develop a “Colonial ideology [that] became the identity of what it was to be truly ‘American’…” And so a myth was developed with a “sanitized story of Thanksgiving – [one] which fabricated a peaceful depiction between the colonizers and the tribes and neglected to mention the amount of death, destruction and land-grabbing that occur[ed] against the first peoples…”
This has been the story, this has been the myth we’ve told ourselves about Thanksgiving for the past 100 years. I think it is time to let go of the Thanksgiving myth and all its underlying white supremacy. Don’t get rid of Thanksgiving. Let’s keep Thanksgiving as a holiday and as a practice. Let’s just jettison the lies we tell about it.
Instead of pretending that the British Separatists were wonderful friends to all the Native peoples they encountered when they arrived, let’s acknowledge the violence perpetrated by them and their descendants against the peoples who were already here. Let’s acknowledge the violence and oppression of Native Americans that continues to this day and agree that it is time for it to stop. Let’s acknowledge that even before the Separatists’ boat landed in Wampanoag territory, the first African had already been brought to this continent, and not of his own free will, but as an enslaved person. 400 years ago this year. And then, let’s work toward stopping this racial violence that is the legacy of the actions of the first Europeans to come to this continent.
Instead of accepting the illusion of a non-existent interracial unity, respect, peace, and equality in the 1620s, “we can focus simply on values that apply to everybody: togetherness, generosity and gratitude.” And let’s commit to actually doing the work needed to create a community of interracial and multicultural unity, respect, peace, and equality.
I think that the first step to doing this might be to acknowledge where we are. We may think we are in the City of Fremont, in the State of California – and in some ways that’s true. However, there’s a deeper truth. We are on Ohlone land. The Ohlone people were the stewards of this land for generation upon generation before any Europeans or Asians or Africans arrived here.
That deeper truth makes me wonder, what do you know about the Ohlone people? I can tell you, I know next to nothing. And I want to change that. So this is my Thanksgiving homework assignment: learn more about the Ohlone people, their history and culture, the injustices they suffered historically and the injustices they continue to suffer.
My other Thanksgiving assignment (and you’re welcome to take these as your homework assignments, too) is to continue to give thanks. In fact, we could start tonight. Would you turn to a person next to you, look them in the eye, and tell them, “Thank you for being here tonight”? The other side of this is to let someone look you in the eye and say, “Thank you,” and to accept that thanks as a gift, no strings attached.
What a blessing it is to be in this community, to sit among people of so many religious and spiritual traditions, gathered for the purpose of giving thanks. This action is, I believe a way we build the community the Thanksgiving myth pretended we once were. Let’s build this world together. Amen.
 There are many sources that will clarify fact from fiction. One I used was Maya Salam, “Everything You Learned About Thanksgiving Is Wrong,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/21/us/thanksgiving-myths-fact-check.html (posted and accessed 21 November 2019).
 Sean Sherman, “The Thanksgiving Tale We Tell Is a Harmful Lie. As a Native American, I’ve Found a Better Way to Celebrate the Holiday,” Time, https://time.com/5457183/thanksgiving-native-american-holiday/ (posted 11 November 2019; accessed 21 November 2019).