by Kate Kooyman
When I was in the hospital, the day my first baby was born, news had just broken of the earthquake in Haiti. I remember deliriously watching the footage, unsure how to navigate the awareness that my exhausted happiness was happening at the same moment as that immeasurable suffering.
This wasn’t the first time I became aware of the catch-22 of “blessings.” The things I usually thanked God for — what I understood to be God’s gifts in my life — had always been lacking for someone else I knew. Did God love me more, and that’s why I had two Cabbage Patch dolls and the girl at my table at school didn’t have one? Did my family deserve a cottage more than my friend down the street? Was my healthy child, born in a hospital teeming with equipment and medicine and electricity and sanitation and a television broadcasting the heartbreaking headlines, a sign of God’s favor toward me?
My go-to response to these questions is, of course, to avoid them. Eventually I turned off the news, and set my attention on my little cone-headed creature and the many visitors who wanted to meet him. I smiled more than I cried. I thanked God a lot of times. I was grateful. And I was oblivious. Turning my head away was how I made it work.
I’ve been thinking about those moments in the hospital because this week — Thanksgiving week — the Trump administration announced it will end the program called Temporary Protected Status for Haitians. At the moment I was cradling my baby for the first time, there were thousands of Haitian people living in the U.S., and in the wake of that devastating earthquake Haiti could not possibly receive them back. The U.S. government decided to give them a temporary permission to stay — to work, and not fear deportation. They did not receive permanent legal status as immigrants. That program has been extended many times, because Haiti has not been able to rebuild, has experienced further crises, and because it still cannot safely sustain an influx of thousands of people. And so all these years — while my baby was learning to walk, going to his first day of school, losing a tooth, those people were buying homes, opening businesses, having children of their own who are U.S. citizens.
Now those people must return, or face deportation. This is not because something magical happened in Haiti that removed the concerns over safety and capacity. It is because our President, and his merit-based immigration dreams, has a goal of removing brown and black immigrants from this country.
Earlier this month, the government also terminated TPS for Nicaragua, and it terminated Sudan’s in September. We expect it will terminate Honduras’s in six months. As if this wasn’t enough, our president also recently announced executive orders regarding refugee resettlement which contain such unattainable conditions that the U.S. is on pace to receive only 13,000 refugees this fiscal year. We have, essentially, ceased to receive refugees during the biggest refugee crisis that recorded history has ever seen. We are, essentially, deporting the immigrants that we already have welcomed.
How does a girl like me give thanks on a day like this? When I think of thanking God for my family, for my home and my safety and my citizenship and the privilege of not suffering in this moment, I cannot fathom that this is what the God of love and grace wants from me. I cannot wrap my head around God being pleased with my saying thanks.
I believe that God is especially dwelling among grieving Haitian-Americans this morning. I believe that God is especially present with Dreamers in their fears for the future. I believe that God is in Yemen, in Somalia, in Libya, in Iraq, in North Korea, in Honduras. I believe that the last shall be first. I believe in “blessed are the poor in spirit.”
And I believe that what I have learned about blessings and thankfulness, my pious attributions of my wealth and comforts to God for mysteriously loving me enough to give me healthy kids and a good job and heated seats in my minivan and maybe even a Lions win, has been shaped by the wrong story.
Many years ago, there was a powerful story that was told to a captive people. It convinced them that they owed a huge debt of gratitude to the Empire — which alone could provide safety and livelihood. The people had to give their grain and goods and selves to protect the Empire’s project. They had to abide by injustice and inequality — rich folks retained their wealth, and the poor got poorer — in order to maintain the “Pax Romana” which would save them. It was a story of scarcity. Protect “us,” guard against “them,” and don’t ask too many questions.
It is the same story that we tell today.
In the midst of that story, there was a feast. A crowd of hungry folks gathered around a teacher, who asked a child to share a few scraps of fish and bread. They passed it from one person to the next, and the baskets wound up more full than before. It was a story of abundance — of a God who gives Manna each morning, whose eye is on the sparrow. It is the story we are called to live.
Perhaps our gratitude to God, our act of giving of thanks, looks less like a pious verbalizing of privileges. Perhaps gratitude looks more like an offering. Perhaps thankfulness is less an attitude and more an action; to give thanks is, inherently, to give.
Because sharing is the acting-out of a different story — a story of abundance and not scarcity. In a world of a suffering which multiplies, I struggle to know how to live a life of privilege that is also a life of faithfulness. But I believe it begins not with saying thanks, but with giving it. Giving time, money, voice. Risking safety, comfort, in a world that is more and more dangerous to those among whom God dwells. And in that way living the story I proclaim to believe — a story of abundance, a jar of oil that never runs out, water that turns into wine, a kingdom without borders, a banquet feast big enough for everyone.
Let’s stop staying thank you. Let’s starting giving thanks.