Who has time to read during the busy holidays? Hopefully these words will make us all think about how we celebrate Thanksgiving. Original illustration by artist Susan Barnes
A Thanksgiving Parable
Thanksgiving is a happy family time, a moment to bask in turkey gravy and be grateful that football games only have four quarters. In such a time of bounty it seems only natural to share with the less fortunate. When she tried to do so, Polly DoRight learned that pushing beyond a superficial stab at benevolence can be difficult…and revealing.
Every year, Polly’s church, the UpRight Church, hosts a potluck and testimony time the Tuesday evening before Thanksgiving. The assortment of casserole dishes and heirloom cake plates fills Polly with memories of prayer meeting potlucks from her childhood church. A smidgen of sweet potatoes, a spoonful of chicken broccoli rice, the rainbow of gelatin salads fluffy with whipped cream, even hot dogs and brownies for the kids: the potluck offers something for everyone. Instead of hoisting an entire piece of pecan pie, guests butcher four or five different confections, trying to “break off just a nibble.”
During testimony time, many white-haired saints stand and recall blessings. The trials these gentle soldiers faced through years of world war, political upheaval and economic crisis is touching. Their stories definitely make the meeting a worship service.
With memories of last year’s homey potluck and her pastor’s appeal to invite someone new to the church Thanksgiving dinner, Polly thought about Shorty, her yard man. Shorty walks three miles to work in the yards of Polly’s neighborhood. He weeds in the swelter of August, plants pansies in frosty November, and trims shrubs through the snows of February, seven days a week.
Once when she drove him home, Shorty described his landlord, Alonzo, to Polly. Alonzo rants about Jesus and drapes a red robe symbolic of Jesus’ blood across his porch. He suffers from a facial defect. His mouth, chin, and cheek are swerved to the right. People driving by snigger and point.
The first week of November, Polly invited Shorty to her church Thanksgiving observance. Shorty asked if he could bring Alonzo. Both curious about and wary of this strange fellow, Polly agreed, reasoning to herself that Shorty might not be comfortable without a companion. Shorty’s incessant questions concerning time and directions belied his hesitation. Polly assured him they would be welcome.
A week later the pastor of the UpRight Church announced the observance would not be a potluck and that adults would pay three dollars. They also moved the service an entire week earlier to accommodate a mission group heading to Brazil during the Thanksgiving break. The shift mean Polly’s husband Pete would miss the observance, because he would be out of town all that earlier week. Polly informed Shorty of the changes, and he still looked forward to a meal at the big fancy UpRight Church on Main Street.
The day of the dinner, Shorty called mid afternoon to see if he could get a “take-out” meal instead. Polly frowned. She intended to get him into a church. But forcing him to stay seemed the equivalent of making him pay. She understood Shorty might not feel comfortable among the UpRight people. She agreed, and instructed him to meet her outside the fellowship hall. He promised he and Alonzo would be there, 5:30 sharp.
Although Polly has been the mother of three children for thirteen years, she still forgets that it takes more time to mobilize her high-octane pranksters than merely to move herself. She began to round up sons and playmates at 5:15, but the car didn’t pull out of the driveway until 5:30, sharp.
They zoomed toward the church, and Polly wasn’t driving like a Christian. The church parking lot was packed. She lurched the car into a bank parking lot across Main Street. She abandoned the children and tore across Main Street to meet her guests.
The food line was already stretched out of the fellowship hall to the middle of the rotunda. A pleasant buzzing of happy homefolk prevailed. Friends laughed; mothers patted daughters’ heads, fathers wrestled with sons, all anticipating the joyous upcoming celebration of feasting, family, fellowship, both that evening and in a couple of days, as well. Polly spied Shorty and Alonzo, subdued, seated by themselves on a pew against the wall, near a small desk where members pay. Everyone ignored them. Polly winced. A hastily written sign on the desk declared NO TAKEOUTS.
An elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. CountRight, took up the money. They were pushed so far out of their comfort zone by Shorty and Alonzo, these men with different clothing, faces, and skin that evidently they had forgotten how to be helpful or friendly. Polly feared that the sign had been instituted after the mens’ arrival. When she questioned the CountRights about the NO TAKEOUTS sign, they shrugged. Polly scrambled back to appeal to the kitchen. The normally cooperative hostess groaned and apologized that they were much too busy, absolutely no way.
A stack of Styrofoam take-out containers perched atop the bread warmer. Polly started to request: “Might I not grab a spoon and fill the plates from here?” But the bustling agitation and confusion of the harried servers stalled her. She briefly wondered if it were this tense when Christ fed the five thousand. She bowed out of the crowded, overworked kitchen.
She apologized to the men and invited them to stay. Shorty stood to leave, but Alonzo stayed put. He wanted to eat, so Shorty shrugged and sat down again. Polly turned to pay.
Mr. and Mrs. CountRight were so bewildered by the crowd and the strangers that the couple had forgotten basic addition. They could not determine the amount Polly owed. She needed to pay for four adults and two children, because her eldest was over twelve. Mrs. CountRight repeated “How many?” several times, then questioned the age of the children as if they were trying to sneak into a ride at Disneyworld. Polly thought she was going to have to pull out birth certificates. The money takers stared at a standard list meant to simplify payments for families, but could not locate a “4 adults 2 children” combination. They scowled at Polly’s guests, as if everything would get better if the men would just leave.
Polly gently reminded the CountRights of the church’s standing $12 maximum for families. Mr. CountRight’s grimace let her know that all discounts were off for the Thanksgiving feast.
“Heavens, these men are guests anyway,” Polly pleaded. The UpRight Church’s regular policy is that first time guests eat free. Mr. CountRight didn’t budge. Polly didn’t need to swear in front of her children, especially in the UpRight Church, but this challenging couple was trying her patience. How her husband Pete would roll his eyes at her well-intentioned predicament, if he could see her now.
Polly finally scribbled a check for twenty dollars. Then she made small talk with her guests in the stalled line. She joked about the crowd, asked after their families. They related their Thanksgiving Day plans. Polly had difficulty understanding Alonzo’s soft voice, especially due to his facial defect, but he did mention that he was a member of another church.
Several UpRight church members stared or frowned at her. These so-called Christians seemed solicitous for her, their church sister, talking to two rough-looking strangers, the church members’ eyebrows raising in a “do you need help?” attitude. But nobody offered any help or words of welcome to the men. It never occurred to the church members that the two men were guests.
Polly’s considerate children had shot into the line with their buddies upon arrival, and were long gone. They swarmed a table near the window. When Polly and her guests finally received their plates, she invited Shorty to sit with her family, but he declined. He and Alonzo chose to sit alone at an adjacent table. Polly didn’t push.
She had lost her appetite. Both men took seconds, Alonzo twice. Polly’s oldest son approached the table, shook Shorty’s hand and met Alonzo. Only two other people came to welcome them. Polly told the men they could leave when they wanted to, and they repeatedly thanked her for the meal.
Her guests left before the observance of the Lord’s Supper, and Polly saw them to the door. As the men walked out into the cold, she questioned herself: Was it a good experience for them? Had the UpRight Church fulfilled its Christian duty? Were only their physical appetites satisfied? Maybe Alonzo and Shorty knew more about Christ than the UpRight Church did. Polly breathed a sigh of relief, but instead of thanksgiving, she whispered a prayer for mercy.
This article was first published in The Times Dispatch; also included in Have Yourself a Hamster Little Christmas.