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A Yankee Notebook

November 24, 2014


MONTPELIER – I was scheduled recently to do some after-dinner storytelling at a trade meeting, and just before supper was idly browsing the vendors’ tables set up on one side of the room. One of the vendors, a long-bearded fellow who owns an RV campground somewhere, discovered I was to be the speaker that evening. He’d apparently read my brief bio in the program, because he suddenly got more intense.

“What do you think of the fact that, if you take a dog to Hawaii, it has to be put in quarantine for thirty days?”

Well, I allowed, that’s probably a good idea. Hawaii has suffered from introduced species.

“But what about all those greasy little brown kids coming across our southern border? They’re diseased and dirty, and they’re covered with lice,. All they want is a free ride on our gravy train. And we take ‘em right in. You think that’s right?”

I mumbled something about the poetry on the base of the Statue of Liberty and Jesus’ command to Peter to feed his sheep, and got the hell out of there as fast as I could. It was too polite a venue for what most likely would have ensued.

But it got me thinking, of course, about the state of our nation and the vehemence of opinion that seems to be stifling any attempts we might make at reasonable solutions to our major problems.

Then this week occurred a harmonic convergence of three seemingly disparate elements of our corporate consciousness. First was the President’s announcement of executive orders to ease the situation of many undocumented immigrants, which provoked Republican leaders to threaten lawsuits, impeachment, and (horrors!) the withholding of their cooperation. The second element were the so-called Propers for the Celebration of Christ the King – the Bible readings for the last Sunday in the Christian year. The third was the approach of Thanksgiving, that once-sentimental holiday on which we remember the Pilgrims and give thanks for our own bountiful lives.

The new executive orders expand the Administration’s plan to defer deporting some immigrants living in the United States illegally, and focus instead on deporting criminals without citizen status. The orders recognize the reality of the huge number of undocumented workers here already, seek to bring them out of the shadows of the constant fear of deportation, and give them a path to citizenship. As a descendant of poor immigrants, I can’t fault that.

I visited the Emigration Centre in Hofsos, Iceland, this summer. The walls were lined with old photographs of individuals and families who, starting around 1870, emigrated westward to escape natural calamities. A comment by the docent struck me: “These were the men and women who had the stuff to pick up and take a chance on an uncertain future in the New World, rather than watch their families starve to death.” I’m sure that’s always been the case with newcomers to the United States: We get the best, the strongest, the most ambitious and imaginative. But in spite of that, the default tendency for each group has been to pull up the ladder behind it. If you read statements of our principles, that’s un-American; if you read our history, it’s all too American.

Then there were the Bible lessons for last Sunday, from Ezekiel, Ephesians, and the Gospel of Matthew. As we listened to them, I couldn’t help but hear in the background the frequent assertion by religious conservatives that ours is “a Christian nation.” The statement is certainly arguable; but even if it weren’t, there are clearly different interpretations of what that means. Our priest, for example, proclaims at the start of the eucharist that “this is God’s table, and from it no one will be excluded.” On the other hand, a large number of American Christian conservatives have been unable to transcend their stern puritan roots, and run their organizations like fraternities with blackball protocols. How they square their ship-’em-all-back attitudes toward kids looking for asylum with this week’s parable from Matthew, I’m not sure: :...just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” There’s not a single qualifier in that whole long passage. It says, in effect, I don’t care how you do it; just do it. Our current national niggardliness is a harsh judgment on us, we people who have been given so much.

Finally, there’s Thanksgiving, first proclaimed officially as a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln right in the middle of the Civil War. Its date’s been pushed around a bit in the interests of retailers at the Christmas season, until now it’s even been overrun – by “doorbuster sales” in which the occasional unwary or unfit shopper is trampled to death.

Thanksgiving’s first celebration, as every schoolchild knows, occurred near the end of 1621, when the embattled Pilgrims – city folks suddenly having to make their living in the forests of the New World – held a three-day feast of gratitude. They’d had a successful harvest, courtesy of the generosity and unstinting help of the local Wampanoags, who’d taken pity on these bumbling undocumented immigrants and shown them how to plant corn, squash, and other edibles. It’s almost as if the Indians had been reading the 25th chapter of Matthew, as we just were.

We’ve often been shown the economic and social benefits of welcoming poor strangers, but that’s not why we should do it. In the end, it’s just the right thing to do.

Photo by Willem lange