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Harvest of Opportunity

Giving thanks for a plentiful harvest is a tradition dating
back to the first Thanksgiving in 1621.

This year's drought-ravaged harvest is likely to fall short
of record yields by any historical measure. And the Food Institute predicts
that drought will raise the 2013 grocery bill for a family of four by $6.75 per
week.

But making abundance the measuring stick of Thanksgiving
blessings overlooks the reality that many Thanksgivings throughout history
weren't celebrations of abundance at all. It ignores an important holiday
ingredient that supersedes the size of the turkey and the TV screen used to
watch the football games.

In the spring of 1856, after a sojourn of 12 years in Rock
Island County, Illinois, my great-great-grandfather, Elijah Adams, brought his
family and a caravan of 23 others by covered wagon to Woodbury County, Iowa. By
the following November, he and his family had:

  • 100 acres of sod broken to the plow.
  • 30 tons of their first cutting of prairie hay salvaged from
    a prairie fire.
  • Plentiful wild game and fish.
  • Supplies procured from Kanesville (Council Bluffs) 90 miles
    away.
  • Nuts gathered in the woods.
  • Wild plums and berries preserved by the women and girls.
  • A 16×32-foot house with a chimney of mud and sticks.

Did they have an abundance? Hardly. The severe winter of
1856-57 threatened their survival. Of their 100 head of cattle, 50 starved or
froze to death by May.

By 1862, President Lincoln had signed the controversial
Homestead Act into law, opening up vast expanses of the western U.S. to
settlement. These Homesteaders paid for their free land with years of extreme
privation. Winds, blizzards, and plagues of insects caused 70% to fail.

During those years, this country was torn asunder by the
Civil War. On October 3, 1863, President Lincoln issued the first national
proclamation declaring the last Thursday in November a national holiday (the
first specific date). It was his attempt to remind citizens of a deeply divided
nation of their common heritage.

Six weeks later, can you picture the Homesteaders pausing to
give a Thanksgiving blessing at their humble sod homes? Can you imagine them
enjoying an abundance of material possessions?

Not all pioneers settled west of the Mississippi. Last
summer, my family and I visited the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side in
New York City. The museum is housed in one of the original tenements. A guided
tour of small apartments, which were furnished for the decades between 1863 and
1935, traces the lives of actual families who lived there: immigrants who
endured long hours in factory sweatshops to pursue their dreams.

Considering their early lives and struggles, they probably
didn't celebrate a land of plenty on Thanksgiving Day. Instead, they were
thankful for the opportunity to succeed and to build a better life for future
generations.

Neither the western pioneers nor the urban pioneers took
harvests of plenty for granted. The promises of opportunity and mobility were
the powerful incentives that had motivated them to cross the ocean or the
prairie, leaving family and home behind. It's what has always set the United
States of America apart from other countries in this world.

Many of these pioneers -- your ancestors and mine -- worked
together to build the first roads, bridges, schoolhouses, and churches. They
often endured great hardship by taking relatives into their already crowded
cabins and apartments. They knew that staying connected with one another was
the key to future success and even more opportunities.

It wasn't the type of connecting that we do on Facebook
today. Our ancestors would be quick to see that these social connections too
often focus on the one-upmanship of material possessions or the good fortunes
of our families.

Tools for success

As we watch Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, we know that the
blessings of this great country aren't all about such excess. Despite the
drought, American farmers have been richly blessed, and most American consumers
will enjoy Thanksgiving dinner without severe financial hardship.

This year, let's pause and give thanks for our pioneer
ancestors who carved a trail for us. Let's show gratitude for their struggles
to create a new world of freedom and justice. And let's pledge to do our part
to continue that tradition.

As my family gathers for Thanksgiving this November, the
beautiful, diverse faces of my seven nieces and nephews are a reminder of
America's promise as a land of opportunity. Six, ranging in age from 7 to 14,
were adopted from foster care.

So let's celebrate this Thanksgiving as a time to overcome
our country's political divisions and pull together to preserve opportunities
for all of our children through access to education and a foothold on the rungs
of the U.S. economic ladder. And let's stay connected, working together for the
common good, and sharing what we have.

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