Thanksgiving challenges us to help neighbors

I often recall the time I went to a remote rural area of western New Mexico to visit the parents of a Maryknoll priest I had met in Yucatan. He had asked me to visit them the next time I was in New Mexico. So, having a free day, I rented a car in Albuquerque and drove about four hours, only to find they were not home. A neighbor told me they had gone to the mountains to cut wood.

Since it was noontime and I was quite hungry, I asked how far it was to the nearest restaurant.

"About 45 miles," he said, and then, after a pause, added: "You are welcome to eat with us."

We had beans, tortillas, chilies and vegetables from the garden, a simple but tasty meal I never forgot, not least because the farmer and his wife had practiced one of the beatitudes: "I was … a stranger and you welcomed me" (Mt 25:35).

What makes that first Thanksgiving nearly 400 years ago worthy of emulation is precisely that quality. In sharing their harvest and the fowl and deer they hunted, Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians acknowledged their common humanity.

Of course, that moment did not endure, and in time the white people decided they did not want the Indians at their dinner table or even as their neighbors, and therefore isolated them in undesirable lands.

As another Thanksgiving approaches, the mail brings this plea from the American Indian Council, Inc.: "Life for America’s native peoples has steadily worsened. Unemployment can range from 40 to 85 percent. Let’s give our Native American brothers and sisters something to be thankful for."

The council provides traditional Thanksgiving dinners for members of the Sioux Nation. This year it hopes to feed 25,000 people. So the challenge now as in 1621 is whether we accept "the other," the stranger, the foreigner.

This year, however, the need is also closer to home. Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of New York, writes about children, families, the elderly, the disabled and others living through extreme hardship and sinking deeper into poverty:

"They never expected to be hungry. Many, in fact, are seeking help for the first time. Some are people who assisted us before. They’ve lost their jobs and are now on the other side of the help equation. They are being forced to make terrible choices: Pay the rent or eat, keep the heat on or buy critically needed medicines."

Msgr. Sullivan is hoping to get enough aid to provide 5.3 million meals to the hungry through community and parish food pantries, 100,000 meals at senior centers and a mobile food pantry for those who cannot get to food banks.

"In one community, more than 50 percent of the hungry are children," he wrote. The crisis is similar all over the country.

The recession makes everyone feel vulnerable. Those with jobs see themselves just one pink slip away from want. So it is harder to be generous. But as the president has often reminded us, we are one people and must work together. As that poor middle-aged farmer and his wife in western New Mexico demonstrated to me, everyone can give a little of what they have.

Moreover, we can nourish the faith of Edward Winslow, who wrote about the first Thanksgiving in "Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth": "And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."

Sandoval is a columnist for Catholic News Service.

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