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We all owe the pilgrims

Posted: Sunday, November 29, 2009

The modern celebration of Thanksgiving, apart from football games and reading the ads to plan your Black Friday shopping spree, is a family oriented day of remembrances and thankfulness.

It is good that we spend at least part of one day a year pausing and giving thanks for our many blessings. And despite the frequent rigors of late November travel, family gatherings are important to who we are.

I just returned from a pre-Thanksgiving visit to Spokane, Wash., to spend some time with seven of my grandchildren. While there, I attended two special Thanksgiving themed events.

At the first, a half-day celebration put together by the fifth-graders at a Christian classical school attended by two of my son's children, was a wonderful presentation of the music, dance and crafts that would have been seen at Plymouth Plantation.

After a modern turkey lunch, we grandparents, parents, and younger siblings of the fifth-graders were treated to a dramatic presentation in which the students gave us a lot of biographical information about many of those who were on board the Mayflower: where in England they had lived, their age at the time of the escape to Holland and the crossing to North America; and something about their lives, their children, and their role in the settlement.

The children understood and communicated the hardships faced both in England, when persecuted and often jailed for their religious independence, and in the voyage, which claimed many lives (but also saw the birth of three children).

I was pleasantly surprised by the scope of their learning and the maturity of their presentations. The children had learned not only why religious freedom was important in early America, but also that life has not always been as easy and carefree as it is today.

On Sunday, I took my daughter's two sons to the Spokane Unitarian Universalist Church while she stayed home to nurse a cold. The guest speaker, a retired professor who became a UU chaplain after retirement, addressed the importance of the Mayflower's passengers to American religious and sectarian life.

When I gave thanks last Thursday, I gave a special thanks to the wisdom of the leaders of the two factions on the Mayflower. They had a history of disagreements and dislikes, but they knew that when they landed in the new country, they would need to put those ill feelings and conflicts behind them in order to survive.

At anchor in the lee of Cape Cod, before disembarking they sat down and hammered out the Mayflower Compact. They agreed that all matters of governance, from choosing leaders to establishing rules, would be by community vote; they agreed that all churches that may be established would be free to call their own ministers and set their own theology. Our democratic principles at all levels of government and our traditions of religious freedom exist because of those pioneers.

I am thankful that I had the opportunity to be reminded of all that we owe the pioneers of the Mayflower. Most of what I heard on those two days I probably had learned decades ago in church or school, but in the pace of modern life and the popular traditions of Thanksgiving celebrations, our indebtedness to those hardy souls gets lost.

Historians will probably tell me that democratic governance and religious freedom would have probably developed anyway in the colonies, given that so many of the first settlers were fleeing religious prosecution and also tended to be commoners who had been ruled by a landed aristocracy and were hungry for a voice in community matters. But the fact remains that a few wise men sat down after a harrowing 51 day voyage and put in writing some basic rules that we live by today. For that we should always give thanks.

• Dave Dierdorff is a member of the Juneau Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.



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