The tables were beautifully decorated with autumn-toned tablecloths, napkins, and a hodgepodge of various parishioner’s china dishes and silverware. In the middle lay ornate decorative pumpkins and bouquets of flowers meticulously designed by the families who put on the meal. The location was Our Lady of Martyrs Armenian Catholic Church in Los Angeles, the meal, an early Thanksgiving celebration for parishioners and the refugee families they serve.
Beside me sat two women whose families had escaped to Greece during the Armenian genocide. Since then they have worked to build a life for themselves in the United States. On my left sat several Syrian refugees who had only emigrated here in the last 3 months. One, a young woman of only 22, had to leave her parents in Damascus and come to the United States alone. She was suffering severe sarcoma cancer. Her hands were scheduled to be amputated in several months but today was a day for celebration, beauty and joy, and her hands would be no exception. She wore beautiful lace gloves over them to hide the scars.
Despite the fact that all but two of the people in that room were refugees; that many had lost family members to civil unrest in their home countries; and that all homes, possessions, churches, communities were lost in their home countries; there was only one thing on their minds this day: gratitude.
The church hall was a cacophony of uproarious laughter, tear-jerking musical performances by parishioners singing and playing old Aramaic ballads, generous gift-giving, and heartfelt familial celebration. This was their new home, their new family, their new life. And in the room not a whisper of tragedy was on their lips or minds, only the staggering gratitude one finds for God through tragedy: an overwhelming gratitude for one’s life.
One parishioner, Alice, an elderly woman thousands of miles away from her home and her children beamed as she gave me a small gift, “Thanksgiving is such a beautiful holiday. I’m so glad we get to celebrate it! What a wonderful thing, to be thankful,” Alice said. “We have so much to be thankful for.”
How someone could manage to find joy, to find beauty in a life ridden with tragedy, separation, loss and uncertainty seems unthinkable to me. It reminds me of what the parish priest, a refugee from Syria said about the lives of his parishioners, “When you have nothing, you have everything.”
And truly the people in this community have everything. They live their lives with unbridled positivity, a passionate love for those around them, and a humbling gratitude for their simplest and greatest gift: the gift of life.
This Thanksgiving, despite trials and hardships, let us remember the powerful truth this community lives by: “when you have nothing you have everything.” And we all have everything: whether rejoicing or suffering, living in one’s final moments, or one’s first breaths, we all have that magnanimous, mysterious gift of life.