Ruth Melkonian-Hoover is professor of political science and international affairs at Gordon College, where she has taught since 2005. She is co-author with Lyman Kellstedt of Evangelicals and Immigration: Fault Lines Among the Faithful (2019). She earned her B.A. at Biola University and her M.A. and Ph.D. at Emory University. Her scholarly interests include Latin America, immigration, and religion and international affairs.
I have been thinking a lot about tables lately, and their relationship to gatherings around Thanksgiving. Earlier this month, I served as project director for a special symposium at my home institution, Gordon College, marking the four-hundredth anniversary of the “First Thanksgiving.” Several distinguished guest speakers came to campus for two panels, attracting over 200 attendees. My role in preparing for the event included myriad logistical matters, many of which had to do with tables—tables for speakers, tables for publications, tables for coffee and refreshments, tables for dinner. How many tables were needed? What shape and size should they be? Where exactly should they be set up? What should be on them?
At first, these tasks seemed fairly straightforward. But upon reflection, I’ve come to appreciate a deeper significance to the process of making tables fit the people you seek to engage. With the aim of catalyzing a constructively candid conversation about American national identity, belonging, and immigration, the Gordon event was titled, “Who ‘Belongs’ at Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Table?” I’ve come to realize that the answer to this question requires first asking another: Which tables need to be created if we’re really going to embody the spirit of Thanksgiving? Perhaps instead of envisioning “the” Thanksgiving table—a table in a specific dining room, with a specific and limited capacity, to which we make our guest list fit—we instead start with the people in our lives, and then ask how we all can make the table(s) fit the people.
Perhaps instead of envisioning ‘the’ Thanksgiving table, we instead start with the people in our lives, and then ask how we all can make the table(s) fit the people.
Growing up in an immigrant family, my parents modeled this in-the-moment, people-focused disposition toward Thanksgiving. In the Melkonian family, “Thanksgiving” entailed very little emphasis on any American origin story starring the Pilgrims, though we held high regard for the Pilgrims—and Native Americans—coming together for feasting. From an early age, I resisted the presumption that to be truly American one had to have ancestry somehow tied to the European colonists of the 1600s. For the Melkonians, being a member of a family that migrated here in the 1960s was quite alright. Choosing to be American held weight in our family. And growing up in California, I was not surrounded by those with ties to the Mayflower, but rather by more recent international immigrants, internal migrants, and many who laid claim to Native American ancestry.
In my congregation, we did have a church service where we thanked God for our blessings and read the presidential proclamation. Regrettably, there was little recognition or reckoning with the horrific historical sins committed in the process of colonization and expansion. In any case, my focus was never the “national” meaning of Thanksgiving but rather the meals shared with other families and friends and playing football in the park. Thanksgiving offered the chance to welcome and be welcomed, to show unity with this country, adopting its customs and celebrations. My mother quickly learned how to cook the standard American dishes (albeit without marshmallows), and it seemed rather normal to me. At the Thanksgiving meal and at many other meals altogether, my parents would routinely invite those outside our family to join us. I rarely knew who to expect at the table, a table that was never static, but one that expanded and shrunk to meet the need.
Thanksgiving offered the chance to welcome and be welcomed, to show unity with this country, adopting its customs and celebrations.
I carried my parents’ spirit with me into early adulthood. When I was a young professional in Washington, DC, my roommates and I would borrow church tables to host 15 to 20 people in our small apartment at Thanksgiving, giving and receiving hospitality from others who also lived in DC far away from home. We hosted because we could: We had the space, we loved to cook, and we wanted folks we knew without plans to have somewhere to feel “at home” as it were. We did not discuss the narrative of Thanksgiving. But we crossed nationalities, races, ethnicities, and regions to come together, break bread, and give thanks. Everyone brought their favorite dishes. After feasting, our tables were broken down quickly. Why? So all could dance together. Thanksgiving meant welcome and community and gratitude and frivolity.
Now with a family of my own, the “dancing” I do at Thanksgiving is more figurative than literal, but I’ve tried to carry on this open and improvisational spirit toward the holiday. For the last decade, my family and I have shared Thanksgiving with a Canadian family with whom I work, as well as extended family members and students and alumni who are in town. Our two families swap the hosting every year. We share renditions of Thanksgiving dishes, and more importantly we share stories of gratitude. A recent game we’ve come to love has us trying to list the most items of gratitude in a brief allotted time, items unique to us (a twist on Boggle). It’s been good to see the common and distinctive themes.
Switching ‘host’ and ‘guest’ roles frequently and fluidly—and in some cases blurring the distinction altogether—benefits all socially and spiritually.
Our students or alumni often reciprocate the hospitality, either later that same weekend or later in the fall. We seek to be good guests, as well as good hosts. Switching “host” and “guest” roles frequently and fluidly—and in some cases blurring the distinction altogether—benefits all socially and spiritually.
Thanksgiving is an opportunity to connect meaningfully with dear friends and family where we are known, or in the process of becoming known; for believers, it’s a chance to share gratitude for God’s provision in so many realms of life and to remind ourselves of what God has done, is doing, and will do. Who “belongs” at the Thanksgiving table? To whom do Thanksgiving tables “belong”? My hope for America this year, as we consider and re-consider Thanksgiving given its four-hundredth anniversary, is that questions like these prompt genuinely inclusive answers—and actions.