Most of us will be sitting down Thursday for the most American of all holidays, Thanksgiving. It brings me a flood of memories.
They deal less with the food that was served because the traditional dishes don’t change that much. We remember family members and friends who are no longer here and the prayers and expressions of gratitude that change each year according to our needs and the pressing issues of our times.
The first Thanksgivings I recall were in 1943 and 1944. There was sadness at the table as family and friends spoke of those lost in the violence of war. Thanksgiving 1945 was filled with expressions of joy for victory in Europe and the Pacific. At the same time, I remember my grandmother’s concern for refugees fleeing Eastern Europe as the Russian Army was remaking the map of that region.
That wasn’t first my encounter with the concept of refugees and immigration. My life had been saved by two doctors, refugees from Hitler’s Reich, when, at the age of 10 months, I contracted pneumonia and spent six weeks in Los Angeles’ California Hospital.
One of my weekly treats with my grandmother or her sister during World War II was going to the Newsreel Theater, at 8th and Broadway in downtown L.A. Before television, the hour-and-a-half showing of news reels was one of our best sources of information.
The war in Europe ended in May 1945. Soon, instead of images of captured German soldiers, we began to see ruined cities and “Displaced Persons” (DP) camps. I was troubled after seeing children my age crowded together in ragged clothes. I wondered what would happen to them.
My grandmother explained that these children and their families might have to find a way to come to Canada, the U.S. or South America. We were all immigrants, she added. Even the Native Americans came from somewhere else because of starvation and climate change.
I already knew the story of Ruth in the Bible, with Naomi’s Israelite family fleeing famine in Bethlehem to go into the neighboring land of Moab. Naomi’s sons married Moabite women. When the sons died, Naomi decided to return to Israel. She urges her daughters in law to remain in Moab. One of them, Ruth, replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.”
This beautiful passage speaks volumes about immigration and how immigrants blend into their adopted families.
Father Russell Brown, pastor of Mission San Luis Obispo, recently preached on the subject of refugees: “Our reading from the Book of Exodus makes explicit, ‘Thus says the Lord, you shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourself.’ Unless our ancestors walked across the Bering Sea by land bridge, our families arrived as aliens.
“And aliens or immigrants or migrants or Pilgrims, by their nature, do not arrive with passports and an advanced degree and two years’ income in their pockets. They arrive in other ways, for other reasons, and always have; and still do.
“The same goes for widows and orphans, that it, the poorest and most vulnerable. The Lord says, ‘If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry and my wrath will flare up against you.’ We clearly fail God when we fail each other.”
Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus, at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.