Thanksgiving is the most Lutheran of all holidays, because it is honest about our simultaneous saint and sinner nature.
Known for being a time when families fight and squabble, it’s not uncommon for the empty chairs left by those too wounded to call each other family, glimpses of addiction or mental health fragilities, and political, religious and generational divides to become the center of what family talks or works really hard not to talk about on Thanksgiving.
But Thanksgiving is not all bad. It simultaneously reminds us to give thanks to God, feed and support those who don’t have enough food and to reconnect as families.
A few weeks ago, as I have done 11 times over the past decade, I went on a street retreat. I was in San Francisco, learning about what it is like for homeless families living in shelters or cars and eating in food lines.
This year, I kept shelter hours in a nonprofit (so that I wouldn’t displace any families or children who needed shelter). My partner and 2-month-old son joined me for part of the retreat. Throughout the week I noticed the amount of additional stress it put on my family to simulate the experience, even though we were not exposing ourselves to the most dangerous aspects of homelessness (lack of shelter, food and diapers, or loss of family, friends and jobs).
I wondered how much more difficult our experience could have been if we had the same burnt bridges that lead to or result from life on the streets.
I left the streets with a deeper understanding of how much more difficult homelessness is when you have children. An important moment for me was when we were sleeping in a car in a safe church parking lot. I discovered that even though I was able to sleep on the streets hundreds of times before, I couldn’t sleep in a safe, warm car with my partner and baby. I was much too hyper-vigilant to fall asleep.
I have never felt that kind of fear before. I cannot imagine what it feels like for the parents of children (of any age) that are living on the streets.
And on this Thanksgiving Day, I think of all the housed and homeless families, the fights and grateful feasts happening around the country. I hope that your Thanksgiving table is a welcome and loving space for the saint/sinners who gather there.
May we continue to invite the members of our families who have disappointed, disrupted or failed to show up at past Thanksgivings. May we continually reset our hearts and continuously work to rebuild and extinguish all the bridge fires we can find in our families. And if not this year, then next year may we gather again at table with our biological or chosen families to try it all over again.
Megan Rohrer is an ELCA pastor and the executive director of Welcome — a communal response to poverty. She and her family recently moved from San Francisco to Rochester, Minn.