Many years ago, in what seems like another lifetime, a large group of young, hopeful college graduates met in the shadow of the Mission Mountains to celebrate Thanksgiving, far away from the familiar comforts of home. It was 1981. We had all graduated college just a few months earlier and chosen to spend a year of service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, scattered across the state of Montana.
St. Ignatius Mission was one such home to a large group of volunteers. St. Ignatius is nestled in the foothills of the Mission mountains, a chain of the Rockies that stretches across northwestern Montana, just south and east of Flathead Lake. The Mission range is beautiful and in late November it was covered with snow. The air was crisp, the sky was blue and the magnificent Montana landscape stretched out as far as the eye could see.
The weekend was meant to be a Thanksgiving retreat. There would be prayer services and discussions about social justice and lots of free time to spend together in what we called “community.” St Ignatius is on the Flathead reservation, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Our volunteers worked closely with the tribal families and on Wednesday night we were invited to participate in the community powwow.
The inside of the community center was packed with people. Many wore traditional dress, beautiful gowns decorated with intricate beading, ribbons and bells. Magnificent feathered headdresses bounced in rhythm to the sound of the native drums. There were those who did the traditional dances, their slow rhythmic steps moving around the circle as one and then the beat would swell as the fancy dancers came to the floor, stepping and swirling as the sound of their bells jingled around us.
I had never seen anything quite like it. When I was younger we had traveled to the National Parks of the west, and we had seen a dancing demonstration or two but this was different. The energy in the room was electric and organic and I was aware that I was witnessing something very few people got to see. We had been welcomed in to a very special space, a space that was equal parts magic and sacred. I sat as if in a trance, my head and heart swelling with every beat of the drum.
The next day we gathered around a long makeshift table. Here we were, strangers from far away places. Places like Maine, Washington, California, Wisconsin, New York and New Jersey… Strangers who had come together to serve others. To step blindly forward towards something they did not truly understand. To commit to forming a community.
It wasn’t easy. In our house in Great Falls there were seven of us, women who had come from many different traditions and experiences, who had different expectations and dreams. We didn’t always get along. We didn’t always like each other. We weren’t always kind. But we had one thing in common, our desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We never stopped trying. We never gave up. We wanted to really understand what it meant to form a community.
That Thanksgiving, as we sat around the table, I looked at all those people and felt full of gratitude. I was thankful for the food on the table. I was thankful for the big blue sky and the cold crisp air. For the sounds of the drums and the bells of the fancy dancers that still resonated in my head. I was thankful for the things I was learning and the people around the table. For the journey we were taking together and the not knowing of where it would lead.
I was thankful to be a part of this amazing community.
This year, as the world seems just a little less certain, I am grateful for my community. You know who you are. Thank you for being there for me and for each other. Thank you for the cup of coffee, the late night phone calls and the comforting hug. For moments spent kayaking and cooking, traveling together and cheering on our beloved San Francisco Giants. Thank you for the times you've showed kindness to me and to those around you. For standing up and speaking the truth. Thank you for holding the light when the sky is at its darkest. Thank you for being you.
Now, more than ever, we need to create community. So in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I invite you to add your own prayers of Thanksgiving. Let's be part of something greater than ourselves. I hope you'll leave a note or a comment below.
What are you thankful for?