I didn’t know much about Thanksgiving before immigrating to America in 1970 as a graduate student from India.
A classmate asked me to join him for the thanksgiving dinner. His parents wanted to feed a turkey meal to a foreign student. It was my first year in America — a single young man alone in my adopted country, away from family.
I happily accepted the invitation. The Nash family made me feel at home at their dinner table — a newly arrived Muslim in America welcomed in a Christian home.
The first Thanksgiving meal in Plymouth, Massachusetts, was also an interfaith and an intercultural experience among the natives and the new arrivals to our shores. That was 400 years ago when two people of disparate origins, traditions, race, history, language, beliefs, and backgrounds, setting their differences aside, are said to have broken bread together.
We need that first Thanksgiving spirit of tolerance, understanding, and togetherness more than ever in modern-day America.
The Thanksgiving holiday is a reminder of the immigrant roots of our diverse nation as well as the welcoming hospitality of those Native Americans. The immigrant story is the story of America.
Immigrants quickly adopt and celebrate American traditions. Far from erasing the existing culture, they expand it. They bring new ideas, expertise, customs, art, and cuisines.
Talking about cuisine, my wife adds old-home flavor to the Thanksgiving dinner, adding some masala to the turkey roast. The stuffing remains traditional. The side dishes don’t. Mashed potatoes and cranberries are replaced with basmati rice pilaf with green peas, cooked onions and a touch of saffron.
As observant Muslims, we now have local access to halal turkeys, like our observant Jewish friends who can get a kosher turkey.
Thanksgiving is now increasingly celebrated as a secular holiday. The Treasure Coast interreligious community holds an interfaith Thanksgiving service every year. Nones, the ones who don’t believe in any religion, are welcomed. This year, it’s again at the Community Church in Vero Beach.
Three years ago, Sana Shareef, then a St. Edward’s School senior, joined me at such an occasion at the Community Church. She played "Amazing Grace" on her clarinet as a participant in that joint service. Imagine a young Muslim girl, her head covered, playing a Christian hymn. An amazing gesture. Overcoming the divisive and charged politics of the day manifests itself in many of our synagogues, churches and mosques.
Venues such as these bring neighbors together and detach us even for a moment from the severe and polarizing political rhetoric associated with today’s political campaigns and the social media echo chambers. They are people coming together to celebrate the gift of good life we enjoy. This American holiday has the potential to illuminate an inclusive nature of our society.
We need such visible symbols of solidarity to make it clear that our nation was established with a motto "e pluribus unum," one out of many. That is the idea of America our founding fathers dreamed of, for our nation to be a giant crucible into which immigrants of all races, ethnicities and creeds had poured in search of an ideal world.
Waves of immigrants continue to arrive at our shores and at our borders seeking refuge from misery because of wars, oppression and brutal gangs, like those pilgrims who fled religious persecution in Europe.
Sitting around the dinner table, we find ourselves grateful to be able to peacefully celebrate the holiday in the safety of our homes, and in the company of our loved ones. Sadly, not everyone has that privilege. There’s so much to be thankful for.
Thanksgiving family gathering has become an integral part of our life. We come together with our children and grandchildren, enjoy good food and give thanks. And for that and much more I’m grateful.
Victor Ghalib Begg is a Muslim community activist and interfaith leader who lives in Fort Pierce, Florida. He is the author of the 2019 book, “Our Muslim Neighbors—Achieving the American Dream; An Immigrant’s Memoir.”
(Source: TC Palm, USA Today Network)