Reflections from President Rev. Dr. R. Guy Erwin

November 20, 2020
Week of Pentecost 24


Dear ULS Community:

This week, there are a couple of themes that are revolving in my head: first, the increased intensity of the COVID crisis in Pennsylvania and the United States generally, and then the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, both in its relation to the pandemic and as an event in itself. These reflections are not intended to be a “newsletter” for ULS, but are simply my own personal gloss on what is going on around us.

But this week I do want to make some reference to actual ULS communications: early next week we will issue another COVID-19 advisory statement to the ULS community, particularly in reference to the heightened level of vigilance called for by public health officials in Pennsylvania and particularly in Philadelphia. It is deeply ironic that just now—as news of potentially successful vaccines provides a kind of “light at the end of the tunnel”—the tunnel itself has narrowed and become more scary. I am confident that we are doing what we can to keep our ULS community safe, and the new advisory will not have much additional to add to that, but I think we all need a reminder right now that this is not a time to loosen up on our precautions, but rather to intensify them.

ULS can rely on nothing more than your good sense. Each of us, as we live and move within a community beyond the Seminary community, must assess our own risks and take our own precautions. Except for our handful of residential students, our student body and our faculty and staff are now mostly separated; our faculty and staff have only limited and careful physical interaction, and I encourage them to reduce even that—as possible—in the weeks ahead.

Those among us who may travel in these weeks expose themselves and others in new ways, and may be subject to quarantines imposed by the states they visit or return to. Those who work in church congregations should also exercise care not to become exposed or expose others. It should not be necessary to repeat the need for masks and the other daily precautions, but as I know that even I am becoming forgetful, I will. We’ve all seen the jokes about how it’s been 2020 for ten years already, and COVID fatigue is a very real thing—but it is dangerous to let it relax our vigilance.

And that brings us to Thanksgiving. I do hope that you and the people in your “bubble” will have as festive a Thanksgiving as you can. Even in these times, we have much to be thankful for, and this most family-oriented of holidays will go on, and be happy—if in smaller circles than usual. I hope yours is pleasant and safe, and that you include in your prayers of thanks the lives and work of health care professionals, the sick, and those who mourn the loss of loved ones to this pandemic. Rob and I will be having whatever kind of Thanksgiving we can throw together by ourselves, in our new home, among the things we still might not have unpacked. The large roasting pan has come to light, but we are wondering how big a turkey two men can reasonably eat alone. (Echo—our parrot—understandably refuses to eat fowl.)

I alluded in an earlier “Reflection” to my misgivings about the popular myths surrounding the first Thanksgiving, and how in the Native community there is some resentment of the myth of a happy relationship between pious Pilgrims and welcoming Indians that culminated in a banquet of understanding. I want to use this opportunity to say that I see two separate questions here: the usefulness (even necessity) for us to regularly give thanks for the blessings we enjoy—which in Christian understanding has led to the designation of special days as “thanksgiving” days of worship and celebration; and the historical commemoration of the “First Thanksgiving” of October 1621, when the surviving English Separatist settlers of the Plymouth colony gave thanks for their first harvest and shared food (according to the documentary accounts) with their Native neighbors.

In declaring a regular national day of thanksgiving in November, Abraham Lincoln and his successors blended these two elements, giving Thanksgiving Day a longer heritage by linking it to the already-venerable story of the Pilgrim harvest feast. The irony of this lifting up of Thanksgiving Day as a part of American historical mythology of Pilgrims and Indians is that it coincided with the final subjugation of the Native population by the U.S. government (and military) and the completion of the reservation system. Not only Native people, but their stories were erased.

But even racist historical assumptions can’t (and shouldn’t) limit a people’s desire to give thanks for God’s gifts of sustenance and family. Native people eat Thanksgiving dinner, too—though maybe with the usual wry detachment and sly humor that is characteristic of Native life. (And we often just call it “Turkey Day.”) But we are also reminded on that day of the gap between America’s sentimental autobiography and its reality in the lives of Natives and other people of color.

I come from a family of mixed race, with white and Osage ancestors on one side, and all Europeans on the other. I count it a privilege to be an enrolled member of the Osage tribe, but I am acutely aware that my white ancestors were advantaged by the suffering of Natives—even some of those they married. That’s part of the American story too—that many of us have ancestors both among the oppressors and the oppressed. I am always aware of that, and it makes me feel especially “American” to live in a paradox of interconnectedness and division.

This is going to be the strangest Thanksgiving of my life, including those I spent in places where it wasn’t even celebrated. The political upheaval around us, the fear of the pandemic and the bitter separation from family—and even for Rob and me to live in a new place where we can’t socialize as we normally would—all these contribute to a sense of unsettledness and incompleteness. But I know that we are still richly blessed, and we give thanks to God to be citizens of a democratic nation, even if its systems are creaky. We are thankful for the commitment of so many to racial justice, even if that promise is far from being kept. We are grateful for our health, when so many are sick; we are grateful to be together, when so many are separated.

And I am grateful for you, the people of United Lutheran Seminary: for teachers and learners, for faithful and hardworking staff, and loyal friends and donors who sustain us with prayers and gifts. I am grateful for the call from God (and the Board of Trustees) to lead this ancient and distinguished institution for a season, and for those who helped preserve it for almost two hundred years before. I give thanks to God for all of this, but especially for you who are reading this today.

And just a note: there won’t be a “Reflections” next week—on account of Turkey Day!

May God bless and keep you in these days!

Yours in Christ,

Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
President
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary

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