Thanksgiving Day 2016 found my wife Janet and me in a prehistoric crater in Tanzania. I’d been hosting several families as we visited World Vision projects earlier in the week. Then on Wednesday evening we traveled to Ngorogoro Crater and checked into a lovely lodge where we would have our team debrief later the next day, after a game drive.
Knowing the next day was a special one for our US-based team, I sought out Vijay, the friendly and gracious manager of the inn. “I recognize that Thanksgiving is only an American holiday, but I wondered if you’ve made any special arrangements for tomorrow that we should factor into our plans?” He apologized profusely, “Oh, if we had known, we would have prepared something, but of course it’s too late now.” I quickly assured him nothing was expected.
The next morning before departing for our game drive, I asked Vijay about using a space in the lodge for our team debrief later, and he told me that this was the off-season, so we were actually the only group staying at the lodge. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when we arrived for dinner that evening. Next to the buffet sat an expertly carved jack-o’-lantern complete with a candle flickering inside, and a chocolate cake with Happy Thanksgiving! written on it. We all thanked Vijay and the proud staff for their gracious efforts, even as we snickered to each other at these out-of-place trappings of Thanksgiving.
Some women in our group were uncertain how we should honor their gracious gifts. So after dinner they approached Vijay and asked if they should perhaps cut the cake. He replied, ” You’re welcome to gather around the cake and pumpkin. Just do what you usually do with them at Thanksgiving!”
The puzzled women reported back to the rest of us. We were equally perplexed. Suppressed smiles furtively shot from person to person as we discreetly shrugged our shoulders at these strange concepts. Then someone suggested we go ahead and gather around, and perhaps sing a song of thanksgiving. The pumpkin and cake were moved into the center of the room, and we tentatively circled ’round, joined hands, and began singing “Give thanks with a grateful heart…”
At first our paternalistic smiles remained, as grown-ups might encircle a toddler and sing about believing in Santa. But as we continued to sing… “And now, let the weak say ‘I am strong;’ Let the poor say ‘I am rich, because of what the Lord has done for us'” the meaning behind the words began to sink in… Images of the weak and the impoverished we’d just spent our days visiting in Tanzania. True gratitude. A stubborn clinging to faith. Around the circle our countenances became sincere, eyes glistened.
We repeated the song again, and this time it became a holy moment and an indelible memory. Many of us found a new Thanksgiving tradition.
We had experienced a beautiful mutuality in giving and receiving. We’d received gracious gifts, albeit imprecise, of Thanksgiving symbols from people who probably have never stepped foot in America yet wanted to please and bless us on our special holiday. And we in turn had given a gift, albeit half-hearted, back to the staff by honoring those symbols and imbuing them with meaning. And in this mutuality, something precious beyond any of us had suddenly entered our midst. Our group was blessed, the staff was blessed, and somehow it felt that the very Spirit of Thanksgiving had descended upon us in a wonderful and completely unexpected way.
Back home a couple weeks later, I experienced a second magical moment of mutual giving and receiving. I met with a family who are strong supporters of World Vision’s work, providing clean water to thousands of people in Africa. That day, when an African colleague and I met with dad and mom and one of their grown daughters, I felt like a kid who couldn’t wait to give the present we carried with us.
My colleague and I then presented them with a carved wooden sculpture depicting raised hands holding high a gourd of clean water, in a posture of praise to the heavens. Even more dramatic, the sculpture was carved on a piece of wood which had previously lined the top of a hand-dug well in West Africa, and the wood on the back was scarred with deep grooves where ropes had cut into it as women and girls had pulled up bucket after bucket-full of contaminated water. The powerful sculpture represented all those people who are now emancipated from contaminated water and related diseases.
We all admired the artwork and took photos with it. Then the patriarch announced, “While we’re making presentations, I have one as well.” He reached into an envelope and pulled out a generous check. After I’d thanked them, he reached in again and said mischievously, “Oh, look what I found” and pulled out an additional check… this one for 9-times the first amount!
Their generosity and playfulness choked me up, and then father and daughter got misty-eyed as well. Here too was this precious mutuality in giving and receiving. Clearly our gift had fostered joy in this family, and they had extended joy to us. And how blessed I was to see their joy in having the means to catalytically make life-transforming ministry happen among people they likely will never meet. At the end, we all laid hands on the sculpture, sang the Doxology and prayed for the millions of people whose plight, and whose transformation, it represented.
Give thanks with a grateful heart. It’s a vital reminder this Thanksgiving season for all of us who are variously weak and strong, poor and rich. And it’s a song that will become part of the annual Thanksgiving tradition for several families who once had the privilege of experiencing the wonder of mutual giving and receiving while celebrating that American holiday halfway around the world.