The Welcome Table

a sermon by Rev. J. Mark Worth



In our stories about the Pilgrims, we remember that the Wampanoag people welcomed the Pilgrims, taught them how to fish and hunt and fertilize their crops, and then participated in the first
Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims, of course, were immigrants and refugees who did not share the local religion or speak the local language. How does this story resonate today?

On the one hand, we love the Thanksgiving and the story of the Pilgrims. On the other hand, the arrival of Europeans in America was always a disaster for the “Indians,” the Native Americans.

The Pilgrims showed great bravery. They were persecuted for the crime of attending their own independent church (rather than the Church of England), so they went to Holland. Their religion was tolerated in Holland, but they didn’t want their children to grow up Dutch. And so in 1620 they crossed the dangerous Atlantic Ocean in a tiny ship, the Mayflower, landing first at the tip of Cape Cod, and then settling down and establishing the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts. They had a terrible winter, digging more graves than the number of homes they built. But when Spring came, Squanto, an English- speaking Pawtuxet Indian, taught them how to fertilize their crops, and showed them the best places to catch fish and eels.

The First Thanksgiving ~

Thanks in large part to Squanto’s help, the Pilgrims had a good harvest, and gave thanks to God at their first Thanksgiving in the New World, inviting their Indian neighbors to share in the bounty. The friendly natives brought venison, the Pilgrims provided the beer, and everyone ate their fill and lived in peace.

Well, much of the story is true, true enough that we teach it to schoolchildren. But we don’t generally mention the beer! And we don’t mention the fact that they probably didn’t eat any turkey. But many of us never questioned how much was fact, and how much was simply the way we wish it had been.

For one thing, the first Thanksgiving in what is now the United States was in Virginia, not Massachusetts. And it wasn’t the Pilgrims. English settlers arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, thirteen years before the Pilgrims. The Jamestown settlers did not come to America for religious freedom, but came looking for gold and for a water route to the East Indies. They found neither, but they did find tobacco, which made the Virginia Colony profitable, especially after they started buying kidnapped Africans, who became their slaves. Yes, before the Mayflower, our economy was founded on tobacco and slavery.

Thirteen years after the English established Jamestown, the Pilgrims set sail for America on the Mayflower. But only about half of the passengers were religious Pilgrims. The Pilgrims called the other passengers “Strangers.”

And the Pilgrims didn’t call themselves Pilgrims. They called themselves Separatists. They were separating from the Church of England, because they believed that no one should be forced into belonging to a church – by law everyone in England had belong to the Church of England. The Pilgrims believed that the church should be run by the people, not by a king or a pope – that the people in the congregation should have control over their own faith. And although the Pilgrims valued conversion experiences, their pastor, John Robinson, said you can’t judge another person’s faith, and so everyone should be free to join the church whether or not they claim to be “born again.” And they believed that members of the church shouldn’t have to agree to a creed. Rather than a creed that requires everyone to agree about doctrines, they gathered under a covenant that says more about how to treat one another than what is believed in common. The Pilgrim covenant was a promise to one another to walk together as individuals, in community, with integrity, while following the path that God would set before them. So there is much to admire in these Pilgrim Separatists.

The Disaster ~

But there is a dark side to Thanksgiving and the arrival of the Europeans, a side we don’t like to talk about. When the Mayflower landed in Massachusetts, the Pilgrims settled on the site of a Pawtuxet village that had been wiped out by disease. The plague that had wiped out most of the Pawtuxet, Wampanoag, Nipmuc, and Massachuset tribes, had been accidentally brought to America by English fishermen who had been fishing the waters off New England for a number of years before the Pilgrims landed. They carried with them diseases that the Indians had never encountered, and had no immunity to. Small Pox, cholera, and measles, even influenza and chicken pox, were deadly to the native people. We now understand that 80% to 90% of the Native Americans were killed by diseases brought to America by Christopher Columbus and other Europeans.

Columbus, and the Europeans who came here after him, brought conquest, slavery, and plagues to America. It was a disaster for the Native Americans. Frankly, the result was genocide. And so the Pilgrims and Strangers landed in an abandoned Pawtuxet village, wiped out by plague, and they gave thanks because God had cleared the area of Indians. But they don’t seem to have understood what that meant in terms of human suffering.

Squanto (Tisquantum) spoke English because he had been kidnapped and enslaved by the English. He had been taken to Europe for several years as a prisoner and a slave, and had only recently been allowed to return to North America. When he returned to Massachusetts he discovered that his own village had been wiped out the year before by an epidemic, probably smallpox. All his family and friends were dead, his village was gone, and the Pilgrims lived there now. Squanto was the only survivor of his people, and he survived only because the English had enslaved him and taken him away before the epidemic struck. So he moved in with the English in the village they called Plymouth.

The Welcome Table ~

Our nation has struggled with inclusiveness. We tell the story that the Pilgrims and Wampanoags ate together on that Thanksgiving day long ago. It seems that the Wampanoags and Pilgrims and Strangers tried to create a welcome for one another, but each group was not exactly sure how to deal with the strange customs of the other people.

We call them Pilgrims and Strangers, but all of the English were strangers in this land. They were a mixture of refugees and adventurers. They didn’t speak the local language. They were not invited here by the Wampanoags, the Native Americans. They arrived without passports. As far as the Native Americans were concerned, they were foreigners who did not belong here – illegal immigrants.

There’s an old African-American spiritual, “We’re Gonna Sit At the Welcome Table.” It was sung a great deal during the Civil Rights years in the 1950s and ‘60s. Black Americans wanted a place at the table. They wanted to be served in restaurants and at lunch counters, and to be allowed to use public restrooms and go to public swimming pools. They wanted to be included, to be treated fairly. They wanted to have the same rights as other people.

In 1621, Squanto welcomed the Pilgrims, these foreigners, these refugees who came to his land. He invited them to the welcome table. He taught them how to survive. Yet our nation has not always prepared a welcome table. If you are Native American, if you are an immigrant or a refugee, if you are a Jew or a Muslim, if you are from the Middle East or China or Japan or Korea or Mexico, if you are poor white, or brown or black, if you are a woman, if you are gay or lesbian or transgender, we have sometimes forgotten to prepare a welcome table for you.

But the promise of America is that we will keep trying to form a more perfect union. It is the promise that we are all created equal, and are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
And so, later this week, we will gather around our Thanksgiving tables. We wish you a happy Thanksgiving, and if you are traveling, a safe journey and a safe return. May our tables always be welcome tables.

Our Pilgrim Heritage ~

One last thing. We Unitarian Universalists love the Pilgrims because their great-great grandchildren became Unitarians. In 1800 the original Pilgrim church, First Parish in Plymouth, called the Rev. James Kendall, a liberal or “Unitarian” Congregationalist, to be the settled minister. Very soon the congregation split, with the conservative minority, who objected to Rev. Kendall’s liberal tendencies, walking out in 1801. They started the “Church of the Pilgrimage” next door, which now belongs to the United Church of Christ, the Congregationalists. Those who walked out said, “The Unitarians kept the furniture, but we kept the faith.”

But if they thought they kept the faith, we thought we did, too. We are still a Pilgrim church. Like the Pilgrims, we believe that church membership should be voluntary. No one should be forced to be a member. Like the Pilgrims, we believe that the congregation should run its own business – our church is not governed by a king or a bishop. That means we are still “Congregationalist” in the way we govern ourselves. And, like the Pilgrims, we acknowledge that we will not always agree with one another, and so we have a covenant rather than a creed, a promise to walk together in peace rather than agreement to a set of dogmas like the Trinity and Original Sin. And again, like the Pilgrims, we know that we can’t judge the spiritual experiences of other people.

The Rev. Alice Blair Wesley, in her book, Myths of Time and History, says that the spirit of the free church is a spirit of persuasion. The spirit of persuasion is both free and freeing. We own our views – we are not here because it is written in a law that we should be here, neither were we told by a pope, a king, a bishop, nor a priest what we must believe. We are here, out of our own understanding, our own faith, and we know that others in this congregation are here because they have been persuaded by their own faith. We will not always agree with one another. We have the freedom of the pew to disagree with the minister, to be able to disagree with one another, and yet remain open to the views of others, so that we can be here in freedom, fellowship and love. That is the kind of religious freedom the Pilgrims came to America to find.

Here, then, is the Pilgrim covenant, as adapted by Rev. Alice Blair Wesley: “We pledge to walk together in the ways of truth and affection, as best we know them now, or may learn them in the days to come; that we and our children may be fulfilled and that we may speak to the world in words and actions of peace and goodwill.”