18th annual Berkeley Multifaith Thanksgiving Service
Northbrae Community Church, host
It is a real honor to be here this evening. I have worked with a number of you on affordable housing issues in Berkeley, where the faith community is deeply engaged. But I want to offer a word of confession this evening in relationship to my work with the Oakland Peace Center.
When the Oakland Peace Center was launched three years ago, I traveled across the country to speak, and wherever I went, I explained, “This is the Oakland Peace Center, not the Berkeley Peace Center.” And from Nashville to New Orleans to Chicago to right here in the Bay Area, people knew what I meant by that: we were about stopping people from shooting people in the street, and we were about ending the school-to-prison pipeline that punishes Black and Brown children much more than White children and we were about creating equity and justice and ending disparities. That was Oakland peace. Berkeley peace, to me, was about banning the bomb and saving the whales. (I told you this was a confession.)
And then one day I was talking to my dear friend Bill Shive, who was at the time the director of the Berkeley Food Pantry. “How are things going at the pantry, Bill?” I asked.
“Not great,” he responded. “We aren’t going to get the shipment of food from the federal government this year that usually gets us through.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said simply. And I realized that lives being ended thousands of miles away had everything to do with lives being ended in my neighborhood.
So I stand with you in solidarity, grateful for the interconnected vision of peace among Berkeley and Oakland residents this night.
My family immigrated here in the late 1970s, but my mother was prepared for our first Thanksgiving, because she had a book about America and knew how we were supposed to do it. So we had Thanksgiving the right way our first year: turkey, mashed potatoes, canned cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.
I can’t remember the exact order, but I think it was our second Thanksgiving that the pumpkin pie was out. The following year, we had ROAST potatoes instead of mashed. The year after that I think was when we ditched the cranberry jelly in a can in favor of GINGER GARLIC cranberry sauce. And at some point Dr. Dutta demanded my mother’s famous Indian lime pickle make an appearance because the turkey was too bland for everyone who gathered.
In a land where sometimes we were made to know that we didn’t fully belong, we took a ritual of the earliest immigrants and made it ours.
This past Sunday I went to La Peña Cultural Center for Thangs Taken, a celebration of indigenous culture and story telling about life for native peoples here in America. We heard the story of not just the first thanksgiving in 1614 after Squanto, who had survived slavery in England and therefore knew English, helped the pilgrims survive. We also heard the story of the second Thanksgiving, when in 1637, 700 people of the Pequot tribe gathered for the green corn festival, and British and Dutch mercenaries surrounded them and killed the men while the women and children who stayed in the longhouse were burned to death. The settlers celebrated their conquest over the savages with a Thanksgiving feast. In subsequent raids and slaughters, the new immigrants debated which was more Christian: to kill the native children or to enslave them.
My spiritual leader, a prominent Black pastor in New York, Alvin Jackson, often says at this time of year: we may have come over on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.
On this holiday, it’s worth remembering not all of us came over on ships, and some of us had no choice in the matter. And we still live with the repercussions of that.
All of the rest of us–immigrants, refugees all–enter a nation shaped by that history, whether we are conscious of it or not.
In moments like last night as the verdict came down in Ferguson, all of us are reminded of the repercussions of that history that remain with us today.
But there is good news for us here in this room tonight.
My father is Hindu, and his tradition teaches about dharma: right action in the context of the forward progression of the universe. Hinduism teaches about doing right by others as a way of maintaining justice in the world.
My mother is Scottish Presbyterian, and I once had the good fortune of visiting the spiritual retreat center of Iona, one of the “thin places” where humanity and the divine connect. On the island of Iona, you are not required to attend programs or meals or anything except the morning work, which is the form of prayer at the abbey. My mother’s tradition teaches that when we work with each other, we are communing with the divine.
And all of our traditions have within them the teaches of right action and pursuing justice as the way we connect with the divine.
We live in a world that is misshaped by greed and materialism, by pitting one community against another.
And sometimes our traditions participate in that.
But there are better parts to our narratives: I remember my cousin taking me to the place in India where Krishna was born, in prison, born to a mother who was incarcerated, calling on us to have compassion for those living in bondage.
I think of my Jewish brothers’ and sisters’ narrative of Moses liberating his brothers and sisters from slavery.
I think of my Muslim brothers’ and sisters’ teachings about God embracing and lifting up Ishmael who had been cast out.
I think of Jesus’ teaching that we heard earlier tonight that God’s heart rests most with the poor.
Every tradition in this room teaches empathy, and every tradition in this room teaches equality. Every tradition teaches compassion for the poor and mistreated.
We live in a country — an adopted country for most of us whose DNA connects us to other lands and other cultures and other rhythms of life — we live in a country where many, many things have been taken from us in order for us to participate in the existing system.
We live in a country that encourages amnesia about the roots of Thanksgiving, that encourages us to give thanks for something that was all about things taken.
But together, we are stronger than that amnesia.
Together, we are stronger than those things taken.
Together, when we unearth the untold stories that shape us,
when we remember our own ancestors and their narratives of overcoming,
when we bring in the best and richest parts of our faith and allow THAT to govern our actions and our interactions,
THAT is a thing worth giving thanks for.
And I give thanks tonight for all of you.