The most common emotion experienced upon returning home from a mission trip to a Third World country is one of gratitude.

I remember clearly my first homecoming from visiting the border of Texas and Mexico. We had stayed in a small rural village just across the border from McAllen, Texas. The home I stayed in was tiny. There was one small light bulb in the center of the main room. My host, a grandmother who lived alone most of the time (except for frequent visits from grandchildren) gave up her bed for me to sleep in. Her house was relatively new because she had children who worked in the US and sent money home to help support her. Other homes were not nearly as comfortable. Many had gaps in the boards of the walls, leaky roofs and dirt floors. Still, our host families were generous with what they had. When I showed them pictures of my house, I was embarrassed, not because it was needing paint, but because my home was so much nicer than theirs. They graciously told me it was beautiful and asked how many families lived there.

When I got home, my humble house looked much more like a castle.

When we experience how much of the rest of the world lives, it is natural for us to compare our lives to theirs. Often our response is one of gratitude. I have come home feeling thankful for all that I have. I have a warm home, enough income to pay for the usually reliable electricity. I have clean water and more than enough food. I have to many electronic gadgets, a good car, cattle, pets, a loving spouse, a supportive community and the freedom to say what I think. I live in a democracy, flawed as it is, that is better than the system of government in many parts of the world. I have thanked God for my many blessings.

The other common response to experiencing the poverty in which many of our neighbors live is a feeling of guilt. What did I do to deserve all the good things I have? Imagine leaving the teeming poverty of Port au Prince, Haiti and the next day being in West Acres Mall? The contrast is overwhelming. The overabundance of stuff, the waste of resources used for packaging, bags, tags and useless items is depressing. The knowledge that many of the products for sale are cheap because they are made with the hands of people like our new friends for wages less than they can live on makes our materialism feel revolting. Depression and feeling of helplessness often afflict us on our return.

So what does it mean to be grateful? Both responses to mission experiences have begun to nag at me and to make me uncomfortable. Is it enough for me to be grateful for the abundance with which I have been blessed? Am I saying, “I am grateful that I have so much. Thank you, God, that I’m not one of them?” Have I done something to deserve God’s favor? Why me? Is it enough to be thankful?

On the other hand, what use is feeling guilty because I have was born where I was, when I was and have benefited because of my lucky birth? How does my guilt make anyone else’s life better?

Perhaps giving thanks is more than holding hands around an overflowing table and reciting all of our many blessings. Being thankful is also more than feeling guilty because others are poorer than we are.

So what do we do to express our thankfulness?

We can share our financial wealth with donations to reliable nonprofits. We can fill shoe boxes with Christmas gifts for impoverished children. We can support soup kitchens and shelters. Those actions help ease the pain of poverty in the short term. Larger scale change is more difficult, but not impossible. We can advocate for fair wages for everyone. People who work full-time should earn enough to live. We let manufacturers know that we want our shirts and socks made by people who earn enough to feed and educate their children and who work reasonable hours in a safe environment. Look at the label. Where was it made? If it seems too cheap, someone probably had their labor exploited to produce it. Don’t buy it. Can we use less, waste less, want less so the earth’s resources can provide for everyone? Can we share our blessings and be a blessing to others next door, across the country, and around the world?

This Thanksgiving, besides saying, “Thank you,” let us consider how we can turn our gratitude from a noun and a state of being into an active verb and a way of living.

Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains