This week, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. Most of us do so by eating all kinds of food like turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, green bean casserole, pumpkin pie and many other things. Sometimes, in the midst of the eating, we forget the goal of the day: to be grateful.
This Thanksgiving, I’ll be thanking God for the privilege to have been born in the United States. I didn’t do anything at all to deserve the many rights and privileges that come with being born in the state of Wisconsin. I can’t explain to you why I was born here, while many of my neighbors were born elsewhere, into situations of persecution, hunger, and poverty they had to flee. I don’t understand why I have had freely given to me so much for which billions of other human beings yearn. The least that I can do is be grateful, and to be a steward of my citizenship and the influence which comes with it.
As I sit down to eat, on Thanksgiving or any day, I should thank God who “makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate—bringing forth food from the earth” (Psalm 104:14). Since I haven’t bothered to go and physically pick the food that God has provided from the earth—I prefer to buy it at the grocery store—I also ought to be grateful for and to the immigrant farmworkers who pick my food.
According to a thought-provoking new report from my friends at Bread for the World, more than 70% of hired farmworkers in the U.S. are immigrants from Mexico and Central America. That means that, unless you grew it all in your own garden, most of the vegetables on your Thanksgiving dinner plate were probably brought to you by immigrants. In fact, more than half of the hired farmworkers in the U.S. are undocumented. Sadly, while they work tirelessly to bring meals to our tables, about half of farmworkers in one state were found to be food insecure themselves because farmworkers are amongst the poorest individuals in our society. They earn (on average) about $350 per week, that is, when there’s work.
Due to the seasonal nature of farming, most farmworkers earn only about $11,000 per year. Despite all they do for us, states like Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia are intent on driving them out—and are now discovering just how much we need these folks. As columnist Ruben Navarrette quipped recently, “If we don’t like being dependent on foreign oil… just wait until we’re dependent on foreign food.”
So I’m thankful for the unearned privilege to be born as a U.S. citizen, and I’m grateful for the immigrants who bring food to my table. But I’m also grateful to my immigrant friends and neighbors who have repeatedly taught me an invaluable lesson, helping to remind me to see God’s grace all around me. Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite authors, describes learning this same lesson in his short book Gracias! much better than I could:
The word that I kept hearing, wherever I went, was: Gracias! It sounded like the refrain from a long ballad of events. Gracias a usted, gracias a Dios, muchas gracias—thank you, thanks be to God, many thanks! I saw thousands of poor and hungry children, I met many young men and women without money, a job, or a decent place to live. I spent long hours with sick, elderly people, and I witnessed more misery and pain than ever before in my life. But, in the midst of it all, that word lifted me again and again to a new realm of seeing and hearing: “Gracias! Thanks!”
In many of the families I visited nothing was certain, nothing predictable, nothing totally safe. Maybe there would be food tomorrow, maybe there would be work tomorrow, maybe there would be peace tomorrow. Maybe, maybe not. But whatever is given—money, food, work, a handshake, a smile, a good word, or an embrace—is a reason to rejoice and say gracias. What I claim as a right, my friends… received as a gift; what is obvious to me was a joyful surprise to them; what I take for granted, they celebrate in thanksgiving; what for me goes by unnoticed became for them a new occasion to say thanks.
And slowly I learned. I learned what I must have forgotten somewhere in my busy, well-planned, and very “useful” life. I learned that everything that is, is freely given by the God of love. All is grace. Light and water, shelter and food, work and free time, children, parents and grandparents, birth and death—it is all given to us. Why? So that we can say gracias, thanks: thanks to God, thanks to each other, thanks to all and everyone.
More than anything else, I learned to say thanks. The familiar expression “let us say grace” now means something very different than saying a few prayers before a meal. It now means lifting up the whole of life into the presence of God and his people in gratitude.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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