Thankfulness

Messiah member, Barbara Gibson, connects Living in Gratitude, the Thanksgiving holiday, and something like Messiah's One Mile Mission. Read on.  

During this Thanksgiving Season we tend to think about all that we're thankful for, but maybe, just maybe, there's room to think about what it is to be thankful.

A long time ago, in a land far away ... or so most stories go, I was a 7th grader in a medium-sized town in the Midwest. Life had a predictable flavor to it until an unusual thing happened in our town. The mayor casually tossed out the idea that the community got the "Thanksgiving Bug". Several churches and community organizations would jointly sponsor seven families from war-torn countries. These families had suffered through wars and unrest in their homeland, had lost family members and were simply seeking peace.

For a town the size of ours to sponsor multiple families was certainly a lofty goal and there would need to be extensive planning, organizing and scheduling done to make it successful. The newspaper first announced the effort with bold front-page headlines and the excitement could almost be felt, but as the weeks stretched into months, the effort barely got a mention on the third or fourth page. A lot of work by some very important people in our community continued while most of us only casually read about it and gave little thought to it. After all, it wouldn't impact us, or would it?

The first day of the new school year brought news that would surprise every one of us. The hard work by the churches and community organizations was becoming a reality AND this class of thirty 7th graders was going to be part of this very adult event. Seven new families were not only coming to our town, but they would be joining our churches and organizations – just like real people. They were bringing their children and their kids would be going to our school! Imagine that? They were just like us with moms and dads, brothers and sisters; who would have thought?

The big news was that three new kids would soon join our homeroom! This was getting too close for some and the adult questions began. Why would all three kids be in one class? Why overwhelm one bunch of kids? Would having three kids who don't speak our language make learning difficult for everyone? Shouldn't the new kids be separated throughout the schools – for the good of our local kids?

We didn't have all the answers for these adult questions, but we had some answers. We were excited to meet them. We'd all help! Our homeroom teacher was fluent in five languages; she'd help them and us bridge the language gap. We'd share our school supplies; we'd make sure they had milk money; and Tommy even promised to be on his best behavior the whole year! Besides, maybe there's something we could learn from them.

As if the adult questions weren't hard enough, we had a few of our own. What if they don't want to eat lunch with us? What if they don't like to do what we do? What if they don't eat the same kinds of food as us? What if ... what if? No matter what our questions were or what was in our minds, that didn't change the fact that 17 new kids were coming from a foreign land, three would be in our homeroom and each of them needed to be welcomed and encouraged. The fear of the unknown had our emotions running from fear and panic to excitement and enthusiasm. One thing was certain: we were ready to teach them about living in the United States.

We made a list of places we wanted to show them (a 7th grade bucket list) and another list of people they would want to meet like the principal, a fireman and policewomen. Oh, this was going to be exciting and we couldn't wait! But little did we know that it was going to shake up the equilibrium of the world as we knew it. One cold, overcast and snowy morning three 7th graders, two girls and a boy, were ushered into our homeroom class. The classroom fell silent as we looked at them and they looked back at us; an entire room of 30 + 3 students fell silent! Seventh graders' being silent was unheard of, but each of us stopped in our tracks. Everyone seemed to be in a trance staring at each other. As if shaking us out of our trance, someone dropped a pencil that sounded like a thunderous clap. Everyone blinked and slowly, the new boy ventured out by cautiously saying "Hello?" The whole class responded with a resounding "Hi!" Everyone took a breath and quickly surrounded the three new students. Life would return to normal, or would it?

Now it began, the differences were real and obvious; they became more so as the days went by.They spoke little English, wore clothes that looked different than ours, had different customs, and were so confused. But something happened, everything kicked into high gear and with 7th graders being 7th graders, things magically began to happen: halting conversations were started, names were exchanged, books were provided, desks were found, and study buddies were identified. The first 5 minutes had passed eventfully and so the day began.

As the days and weeks went by we learned more about each other, talents and skills were shared, trust was formed, and friendships developed. Over time we learned they had lost almost everything during the strife in their homeland, including their two oldest brothers; we couldn't fathom such a loss. They had to move often, food was scarce, there was no running water unless they ran with the buckets (Anna's joke, not mine), and they were almost never warm; we didn't know what "struggling to survive" meant. When they set off for America, they had only take what they could carry. They had one extra change of clothes: One for church and the other for work; we couldn't imagine not having a closet full.

After they arrived in America, they lived for a short time in New York City before moving to the Midwest and Anna told us about her family (parents and 5 brothers and sisters) living in the "big city." They lived in a 4-room apartment on the 6th floor of a very tall apartment building. To her this was an adventure - they had never seen so many cars, or people, or tall streetlights, or street signs, or apartment buildings that tall.

She proudly showed pictures of their first American home. When we looked at them we saw pictures of what looked like the ghetto and were appalled by the dilapidated buildings with shattered windows and broken steps. Even though there wasn't an elevator going to their 6th floor apartment, it had the luxury of running water and there was glass in the windows. When they stuffed rags in the broken window panes, the apartment was warm. We couldn't believe the windows were broken and there were no elevators! Oh, but she had been given an old camera and was already rich enough to take pictures!

Then we saw pictures of the tattered, dingy clothes hanging from laundry lines draped across the back alleyways stretching from one building to the next. We could only wince and turn up our noses at such a dirty, messy sight. But these new Americans we so awed and amazed at it all. To think, Americans had so many clothes that they could stretch across an entire alleyway!

Sure, we taught them how to live in the United States, but they taught us what it means to live in America! During this Thanksgiving Season may we be thankful people, thankful for the freedoms we enjoy knowing that with all its faults, there are people still waging everything to start over in this place called America. But Anna and her friends taught us one more thing: Thanksgiving isn't a time of year, it's a state of heart and mind. Our loving, caring Savior saves us and continually provides us with so much that we are overwhelmed. So overwhelmed that we have reason to not only give thanks every day, but to pay it forward; we have reason to see the best in everyone and provide a hug to someone who needs it; and we certainly have reason to give back in untold acts of giving and kindness as we learn to live in gratitude. HAPPY THANKFUL GIVING!

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