My favorite Thanksgiving was spent with homeless illegal aliens.
I was in middle school in San Diego. Near our neighborhood was a canyon where a group of 20 illegal aliens lived. The group of men were day laborers who sent everything except a meager pittance back to their families in Mexico. And so there near the red-tile roofed tract homes in the deep cuts of the canyon where you couldn’t see if you weren’t looking, was a little shanty town of cardboard box structures. Our church, also near the canyon, left their courtyard bathrooms unlocked all the time so the men could use them.
Victor was one of those men. He started coming to church, and not just to use the bathroom. Before my eyes, Victor transformed from an illegal alien to a family friend. He spoke adequate English with a heavy accent, and was short and strong with a cowboy hat and a thick mustache. He always came to church in his Sunday best – a plaid, pearl snap long-sleeved collared shirt and jeans with inexplicable starch marks down the sharp creases. Did he have an iron in his shack, I always wondered?
Victor had a lot to be thankful for, and he’d tell you if you asked. He spoke with pride about his wife and children, and how much money he made here in America. Occasionally, he would go on vacation to visit them, packing his few belongings into a hard backed, 1970’s suitcase. A few weeks later, he would return and take up residence in his cardboard shack once again.
With all our extended family in Texas, holidays were always a patchwork quilt of friends, adopted family and a straggler or two. One year my mom decided we should invite Victor to our house for Thanksgiving. For days she talked about having him in our home, introducing him to our favorite American traditions and favorite Thanksgiving dishes.
But as she planned out the meal, she realized it led to one inevitable conclusion – us staying in our home and Victor going back to his cardboard box. And rightly so, it broke her heart. Determined to do something that would introduce Victor to Thanksgiving and give him a good meal, my parents put together a Thanksgiving feast in our church courtyard for Victor and his friends in the canyon.
It grew and soon there were three other families helping us throw the feast, and it was glorious. I still remember that day better than any other Thanksgiving in my childhood.
I remember looking down at the large picnic table from the second floor of the courtyard to see my family and friends and our guests from the canyon enjoying a meal together. I remember helping my dad open a gallon-sized can of green beans. They’re small, silly memories, but those are the moments that stick, I suppose.
I also remember that this meal was a sacrifice. We lived paycheck to paycheck. Being the typical first child, I knew that things were tight. But that Thanksgiving, I saw that you didn’t have to have much to give much. I also saw that you could make an impact on someone’s life simply. Poverty, illegal immigration, homelessness – we didn’t solve any of those problems that day. But we did feed our friends in the canyon, and we continued to help them after Thanksgiving.
That year I realized there are shanty towns everywhere, if you’re willing to look. Some of them are a collection of cardboard box shacks in neighborhoods rich and poor. And some of them can’t be seen at all. These shanty towns hold regular looking people in regular looking homes – the lonely, the depressed, the mourning. They suffer from the poverty of the soul. You don’t have to go to Brazil or South Africa to find a shanty town. There’s probably one in your suburb. Just look.
And, of course, I remember Victor – a man who had much to be Thankful for, and he’d tell you if you asked.
What are you thankful for?