Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Immigrants and the Table of Thanksgiving

I am a first generation immigrant from the Philippines. My wife and I, together with our older son, came to America in 2008 when I was appointed to serve the United Methodist Church of Chugiak here in Alaska. Our younger son was born here.

As an immigrant family, adjusting to life and ministry in a foreign land had its challenges. Transitioning to ministry here was the easy part, almost seamless, thanks to the United Methodist connectional system which makes us do things in distinct, almost similar or at least recognizable ways wherever we are in the world.

It was adjusting to American culture and lifestyle that was a little more difficult. When we first got here, we had to apply for social security numbers, driver's licenses and other documents that established our identity and our residency. It felt like starting from scratch, that we never existed prior to coming here. Coming from a cash-based economy, we had to apply for credit cards and learn how to use them. We had to establish credit before we could own property. We couldn't even own a cellphone with a line and monthly bill without paying an insane amount of money because we didn't have any credit. So, for the longest time, we used cellphones with prepaid cards.

We also had to understand the tax system which was made complicated by the fact that I am clergy. Thankfully, I am married to a financial genius who read the books and figured it all out, to the utter amazement of the employees of a popular tax-preparation office. They were so impressed that they offered her a job, which at that time she couldn't take, because of our immigration status. You see, we came on Temporary Religious Worker visas. I had an R1 as the primary religious worker and my wife and son had R2s- dependents of the religious worker. One of the stipulations of the R2 visa is that my wife is not allowed to work and that my compensation should be enough to support the whole family. Three years after, our visas expired and we had to navigate the complicated (and expensive) immigration process, to become green card holders or permanent residents.

I could go on about the challenges but I think you get - it's hard being an immigrant. And our's was even a relatively easy, straight-forward process. I know of others whose journeys have been more circuitous. It's one thing to visit and be a tourist in a foreign land. It's another thing to decide to live there for good, or at least for a season or for the foreseeable future.

Around this time of the year, we feel another tension, this time cultural. In the Philippines, we do not celebrate Thanksgiving, at least not in the traditional sense that Americans celebrate it as a national holiday. Filipinos give thanks, of course, and in numerous settings, but we do not connect our thanksgiving to the Pilgrims at Plymouth. We just couldn't. It is not part of our story. And so it is not a national holiday for us. 

So how have we managed the tension these past 6 years? There is an aspect of the first thanksgiving, or at least the one we attribute this national holiday to, that strikes me as relevant, even for us immigrants:

The original Table of Thanksgiving was a table of immigrants and natives coming together around a common meal. It was a celebration of diversity. The menu was a combination of immigrant dishes and recipes cooked with ingredients harvested in the new land using agricultural techniques taught to them by the natives. It was a celebration of their shared life in the shared land!

For the past two years, we have celebrated Thanksgiving with dear friends whom we very much consider family. They are a younger American couple who are godparents to one of our sons. Our thanksgiving table is definitely non-traditional but is a wonderful coming together of two cultures. One year we had turkey, stuffings and cookies with pancit, lumpia and leche flan. The next year we had ribs, oven-roasted veggies, pasta and pumpkin pie. Both years, we had a great time and we are looking forward to Thursday!

It is not so much how perfect the turkey turns out, or how the spread looks like, or how all the elements should be there. Thanksgiving was and always should be a celebration of diversity. That as people of different color, race or tribe, we can come together to lay aside our pride, celebrate the things we have in common as well as our differences, and sincerely give thanks to the God who loves us all.

It is my prayer that this diverse table of thanksgiving extend to the table of daily life. May each day be a day of laying aside our hatred and pride, a day of celebrating our diversity and a day of living the truth that God's love is for all.

From our family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving!

Your fellow disciple,

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