Interfaith Community Thanksgiving Service, November 18, 2018 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Reflections on Giving Thanks in Times of Trouble

Texts: Deuteronomy 26:1-11, 1 Corinthians 9:6-12

I have a love/hate relationship with Thanksgiving. Not, mind you, with the act of giving thanks, but with this particular national holiday we are here to observe today. My love for it runs deep: memories of huge Thanksgiving feasts followed by snuggling up next to my dad to watch football (yes, while my mom cleaned up the epic mess she had made in the kitchen and my five siblings and I had made at the table – granted, it’s probably a better memory for methan it was for my mother); family gatherings not-quite-so-fraught-with-friction as the ones during the mad rush of Christmas and presents and dashed expectations of the “perfect” Christmas. As I’ve grown older, I appreciate even more deeply the community and fellowship that is in such abundant supply on this holiday in particular as folk throughout this land pause to express gratitude to God.

However, my love for Thanksgiving is countered by my growing discomfort with it, as well: the mythical story of peaceful feasts between Pilgrims and indigenous peoples shatters with the knowledge that Europeans decimated and devastated land and populations, and yet our children – mine included – continue to dress in feathered headdress or black Pilgrim hat with buckle as if the truth can be wiped out by cuteness; add to this the contemporary struggles over just how early is too early to be camped out for that perfect Black Friday – now Thursday – sale, as giant retailers disregard the desire of employees to have some time with their families so that corporate profits can get a jump on the competition; and even the idea that I should enjoy such a position of comfort and privilege as I prepare to sit down at a table groaning with abundance when 43 million Americans still live below the poverty line.

So what’s a preacher to do on a day like this? As one of the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures might say, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Qoheleth 1:9). Did you know that during the Great Depression, retailers were so concerned about the effect on profits due to the late date of Thanksgiving one year that they actually prevailed upon President Roosevelt to change the date to a week earlier? But some states already had school and holiday calendars set, so they kept the original fourth Thursday, and some states actually celebrated on boththe third and the fourth Thursday. And it happened this way two years in a row! Congress finally had enough of thatconfusion, so designated the fourth Thursday as the national holiday, and it remains so to this day.

Of course, this Thanksgiving we still have to contend with the events of the past weeks and months in our nation, mass shootings too  numerous to remember, a contentious election, wildfires destroying whole towns and killing indiscriminately, a rise in white nationalist activity. Where’s the thanksgiving in all of this?

Most of you know that I came to Hoboken from Charlottesville, Virginia, where I served as Associate Rector of St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal Church at the University of Virginia and was Chaplain of Episcopal Student ministries for the university. As if that were not enough, I was also the co-convener of the Charlottesville Clergy Collective and a founding member of Congregate C’ville. What all of this means is that I was an organizer of the clergy when the Nazis came to town.

I don’t use that term, Nazis,  lightly. I don’t know what else to call hundreds of white men carrying torches and wearing swastika armbands, chanting slogans like “Blood and Soil,” “Jews will not replace us,” and “You will not replace us.” If it dresses like a Nazi and chants like a Nazi, it’s a Nazi.

I’m sure you have all seen the images and know at least parts of the story. The city of Charlottesville was shocked out of its sleepy Southern slumber on Mother’s Day, 2017, when a band of tiki-torch wielding white supremacists gathered around a statue of Robert E. Lee, a statue which the City Council had voted to remove until a court injunction prevented it. That march launched a summer of incessant white supremacist activity. The rally by the Ku Klux Klan on July 8 ended in chaos as counter protesters – not Klan-folk – were on the receiving end of tear gas by the State Police. Those of us organizing and leading counter protests recognized just how little prepared we were for what had been called the Unite the Right rally, coming to town on August 12.

For that month between July 8 and August 12, we were in a constant state of preparation, training in non-violent direct action, issuing nationwide calls for support from clergy and others to stand against the hate that was descending on our town. The night before the rally, on August 11, we held a mass prayer meeting in my church, St. Paul’s. The idea was to model the Civil Rights era prayer meetings when a community would gather in a local church, windows open and overflow crowd outside, and Dr. King or Dr. Abernathy would preach and encourage the people for what lay ahead the next day. That’s what we did. Dr. Cornel West and the Rev. Traci Blackmon preached up a storm. We had Muslim prayers and Jewish prayers and freedom songs ringing through the packed church, while across the street, the first salvo of the weekend was fired, with the march down the Lawn of Thomas Jefferson’s university, surrounding his statue and wreaking violence on a gathering of students and staff protecting their university. We knew then that the next day would be ugly.

And it was. Any pictures you’ve seen are not as bad as it actually was. I have never seen such weaponry on civilians in my life. I never imagined I would see snipers stationed on top of the funeral home and historic society overlooking the park. I never imagined that I would not be able to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. And, most importantly, I never imagined that my friends at the synagogue could not be sure if they would have a synagogue in which to worship once the day was done.

One indelible image from that day – and one of the many reasons I can find to be thankful – was the sight of the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel coming from Shabbat services, walking down a street just occupied by a horde of heavily armed white supremacists, his kippah on his head and tallit flowing behind him. And he came to where we were gathered, rubbed his hands together and said, “What do you need for me to do?” A short while later, Rabbi Tom received a text alert telling him that a credible threat had been detected to ,”Torch the Jews.” I asked if he was okay, and he said that the scrolls had been removed including one rescued from the Holocaust, all the people were out, so, whatever happened would happen.

It was about then that we received word of the car plowing into a crowd of people, and we got a call for someone to drive an injured person to the hospital. You see, in the chaos, activist medics and others were managing the injuries because emergency personnel could not get there quickly enough. So the other rabbi, Rachel Schmelkin, and her husband Geoff removed their kippot and headed out past the park where the statue stood immovable amidst the chaos, and retrieved their car, giving an injured person a ride to UVA Medical Center.

The day ended. We all gathered at the Methodist Church to debrief and to pray and to hug. Over the course of the next several weeks, we had continual mini-eruptions of white supremacist activity. Every court case brought a contingent of supporters to town. I hasten to add, that these racists were not all outsiders. The organizers of the summer’s events were homegrown graduates of the University of Virginia. White supremacy is baked into the slave-holding soil of Virginia, so it was fertile ground for the events of last summer.

Now, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with being thankful. First of all, coming together with a diverse group of people, many of whom I would otherwise have had no occasion to know, to confront evil in our midst, gives me great joy. The friendships, the relationships, the trust that others would put their lives on the line for me as I would for them. Most of us who are white and privileged thought that we would place ourselves between the targets of hate and the haters. But then we looked up and saw Rabbi Tom and Rabbi Rachel, and people of color, and gender minorities – those that white supremacists love to hate – standing right there with us.

We built a community with a common purpose. On Sukkot, Rachel had a gathering of young adults under the sukkah outside of Congregation Beth Israel. There was a report of a small gathering of torch-wielding racists at the Lee statue a block away. She sent a message for help, and several of us showed up. I was at dinner with my husband and a friend and casually said to them, “Hey, can we walk up toward the synagogue?” Several clergy and a few activists plus my husband and our friend, placed ourselves on the sidewalk around the party so they could continue in their celebrations. I’m grateful for friends who showed up.

Once I left Charlottesville, I found it hard to gain my footing, not that I wasn’t welcomed and I certainly wanted to be here, but I didn’t realize how anxious I had been with the ongoing stress of continual threat, and I no longer had that community of friends to share that with. I still maintain close connections with them all as they continue to confront white supremacy in Charlottesville. Just last week, in broad daylight, swastikas were spray-painted on a public wall right downtown.

I’m still thankful that there are people committed to pursuing justice and goodness and protecting those who are threatened, whether it’s at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh or Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville or United Synagogue of Hoboken right here.

We are in the hope business. Together, we can do the work we need to do to end hate and persecution and prejudice in our world. And we are not alone. That may be the best news of all. We all have work that we can do, together.

On August 11, when we were confined to my church until the danger from the marching Nazis could be assessed, we sang a lot of freedom songs, but perhaps no song was more moving than the one taught to the 700 people crowded into the building by Rabbi Tom and Rabbi Rachel. It was written for the daughter of another rabbi, Menachem Creditor, following the shootings at Sandy Hook. It talks about building a world of lovingkindness, and how it’s work we are all given to do. The words are in your leaflet. I’m going to teach it to you with help from Rabbi Rob Scheinberg, and I hope that you will remember it when you leave this place. Remember that we are not helpless in the face of hate, nor are we alone. And that, my friends, is more than enough reason to be thankful.

Olam chesed yibaneh.

I will build this world from love;

and you must build this world from love;

and if we build this world from love;

then God will build this world from love.


ASEPInterfaith Community Thanksgiving Service, November 18, 2018 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas