Given the civic holiday's roots in religious gratitude, it's not surprising that Catholics throughout the U.S. have made Thanksgiving their own. Many of them find that the deepest appreciation of blessings is found in passing them on to others.
“Everything is gift”
Dr. Johnathan Reyes, President and CEO of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Denver, told CNA that the holiday offered an important message about appreciating God's gifts, and using them to care for those in need.
“Our lives are not out own,” Dr. Reyes reflected. “They've been given to us, for the sake of giving them away to others.” He noted that this aspect of the human condition becomes particularly clear “in a setting where people have great need.” Under those circumstances, he said, God's own graciousness becomes clear – and prompts many people to respond with generosity.
He offered Americans the challenge of taking “more from Thanksgiving than simply feeling good about life.”
“There's a principle here, that I want to carry with me throughout my life … 'To lose your life is to gain it'.” Authentic gratitude, he said, finds its fulfillment in a response of “self-donation.” This sacrificial generosity extends beyond one's circle of family and friends, to radiate a life-changing impact throughout society.
Dr. Reyes said his own life has been profoundly shaped by Catholic Charities' annual Thanksgiving meal at Denver's Samaritan House. Every year, Colorado's governor and members of the business community gather to serve the holiday meal to hundreds of homeless men, women, and children. The head of Catholic Charities brings his family, to share the Thanksgiving feast they've helped to provide.
More than a fleeting gesture of concern, it's an opportunity for leaders in business and government to view their vocations in light of Jesus' teaching: that “whoever wants to be first must be last of all, and servant of all.”
Dr. Reyes described the event as a “constant reminder” of the “joy of giving,” for his own family and the community members who participate.
From the perspective of faith, it makes them mindful that “everything is gift,” a sign of God's generosity. This memorable phrase, drawn from Pope Benedict's encyclical on charity, encapsulates the Christian significance of the Thanksgiving holiday, Dr. Reyes said.
A “Matthew 25” meal
It's not difficult to imagine Jesus himself sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner at Casa Juan Diego in Houston, Texas. The founders of the house, Mark and Louise Zwick, have served thousands of immigrants, refugees, the disabled and wounded, and those otherwise in need of help, in accordance with the principles of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin's Catholic Worker movement.
“We will have a dinner for 500 people, who live in our neighborhood or benefit from our help,” Mark Zwick told CNA. Prince of Peace, a local Catholic parish, will continue its 20-year tradition of providing “a major kind of Thanksgiving meal.”
Guests will include illegal immigrants, local day-laborers, a group of spinal-injury patients, and many who simply “have nothing to eat.” They also distribute 1,100 turkeys every year, provided by a donor “so that the feast can be continued.”
The couple established the house of hospitality in 1980, the same year that Dorothy Day died, to provide food and shelter for refugees fleeing from the wars that were ravaging Central America. They still hold a Spanish-language Mass every Wednesday, to give thanks for the safety of those who have crossed the border to escape violence and desperate poverty.
Louise Zwick said she sees a clear continuity between these weekly Masses of thanksgiving –where unauthorized immigrants express their gratitude upon finding safety and shelter– and the American civic celebration of gratitude.
Like the efforts of Ms. Day herself –who is now being considered for canonization– the Zwicks' work courts controversy. But Louise Zwick maintained that she and her husband are only engaged in politics “in the Aristotelian sense,” alluding to the ancient Greek philosopher's insights about justice and the common good.
For Mark and Louise, Thanksgiving is an especially important opportunity for recalling and acting on Jesus' admonition, that “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
With this teaching in mind, they've opened Casa Juan Diego's Thanksgiving to many who have never celebrated the American holiday before. Whether or not those immigrants and refugees will ever celebrate it again, they're grateful for the clothing, medical care and shelter they receive, at the house named for the Mexican saint and Marian visionary.
Mark Zwick also encouraged Americans to keep others' needs in mind on the day after Thanksgiving. That day, nicknamed “Black Friday,” has become a holiday-shopping bonanza for consumers, retailers, and manufacturers.
Others have retaliated by designating the same date as a worldwide “Buy Nothing Day.” While that sentiment has some resonance with Catholic Worker principles, Mark Zwick offered a better idea: to give away clothing that day, and even consider making “Black Friday” the beginning of a yearlong campaign to buy clothes only for the poor, rather than for oneself.
Father Woody's Haven of Hope in Denver, Colorado has enough space to provide meals to 250 homeless and hungry people. That's why the staff and volunteers have taken to serving each meal in several shifts to accommodate around 800 daily guests who depend on them for food as well as showers, laundry, and often clothing.
When the Franciscan-inspired shelter (named for a late, beloved local priest) opened its new building in 2007, the 250-capacity space seemed large. It doesn't anymore: “We're seeing probably seven to nine new faces a day,” Executive Director Melinda Paterson told CNA. “You think, every month: 'Please, let there be enough food. Please, let there be enough to provide and feed them.'”
She wants the shelter to be, as much as possible, a loving home for the homeless. Many of them have lost touch with their family and friends, for a variety of reasons. Although Father Woody's is closed on Thanksgiving Day, to allow their staff to rest and celebrate with their families, the kitchen workers showed their love by serving three days' worth of Thanksgiving dinners –an estimated 2,400 of them– from Nov. 22-24.
While the staff members respect guests' privacy, Paterson said they regularly receive messages from parents, siblings, and children. They're thankful for the shelter that may have saved the life of their loved one, spending Thanksgiving far from home. Staff members pass the messages along when possible. Some linger on a bulletin board, in case someone ever shows up again.
Once Thanksgiving has given way to “Black Friday,” the long line outside Father Woody's will attest to both halves of the statement Jesus made in Mark's gospel. “The poor you will always have with you” – and yet, as he also said: “whenever you wish, you can do good for them.”
“We just are clothing too many people,” Melinda Paterson said, estimating the shelter's capacities. “We're 100-percent donations, in our clothing. We just don't have what we need to clothe them.”
“We didn't have any socks today, any underwear, any– you know, essentials.” Thanksgiving-weekend holiday shoppers might want to keep this “Christmas list” in mind.