Operation Plymouth: Bethel's 'live Thanksgiving' wasn't quite what anyone expected

It would be hard to overstate the enthusiasm Meredith Cleghorn brought to an idea everyone thought novel and promising, an idea Meredith herself had come up with—an idea she thought would put Bethel Church on the map for once. On good days, Meredith wanted to believe that stodgy Bethel was the turtle of the old fable, the rest of the upstart evangelical churches around them a pack of speedster rabbits. But on bad days—and there were more than a few—she thought this turtle of a congregation so awkward, so stuck in its own shell, that someday it would be left in the dust by its neighboring churches.

This time, she thought, we'll put our name in lights on Thornwood Avenue—the "avenue of churches," people called it, because passersby had more options in six or eight blocks on Thornwood than they had off the menu at Applebys. But this idea was something totally new. Most of the fun church things were imported—somebody's brother's uncle's church in New Jersey or southern Cal having a crack-of-dawn quick-worship for Sunday golfers, for instance, or hauling the whole Praise & Worship team out on the lawn and asking people to take blankets so the service looked like a rock concert.

And who wanted to do a live nativity anymore? It's been done, she thought. So she came up with the next best thing: a live Thanksgiving.

It was amazing that no one had thought of it before, what with the day being a national holiday and having its roots in real Christian piety—the Puritans were Christians after all, she told the preacher, even if they were far too stiff.

Pastor Barnes was a Massachusetts native, and the idea sounded almost homey to him. The consistory thought it would be a good opportunity to involve more people in the programs of the church; and the liturgy committee, in one of its few unanimous votes in the last decade, offered Meredith carte blanche, even though it had no funds to speak of. A live Thanksgiving seemed a perfect idea.

Meredith recruited Mark Winslow to do the costume work, since he directed theater at Glendonwood's William James High School and had scores of books on period dress. Mark called her back a day later, thrilled to have discovered that the Puritans didn't only wear black, as all the holiday marketing posters seemed to suggest. They didn't always wear pointy hats either, like the witches they'd tried to burn. He said they even liked bright colors—John Winthrop, one of their first governors, loved a bright red sash.

The foods thing wasn't as promising—gruel and beans and corn and venison. But then Meredith and her group had decided not to serve people Thanksgiving dinner, only to picture that first holiday on the church lawn—forty or fifty Puritans and a couple dozen Indians having a meal. Norma Richter was uncomfortable with the whole notion of replicating food and drink, because she'd discovered, she said, that the Puritans were big beer drinkers. "You're kidding!" Meredith said. Norma Richter nodded in repentant silence. But they weren't after really strict authenticity anyway. "When Newmarket Church did the Last Supper thing last year," Pastor Barnes asked, "do you think they drank real wine?" Of course not.

Scott Foreman, who cuts his own wood, volunteered dozens of stumps for seating; and committee members figured they could dye a half dozen old sheets in flat earth tones, then spread them over six or eight tables hauled out of the basement. Once upon a time years ago in college, Fanny Michaels had done a physical education paper on early American games. She said she'd see if she could put together a few hoops and sticks, or whatever.

For a long time, they worked with an intensity created, at least in part, from the covertness of the operation; they tried very hard not to whisper a word of this around the community, lest some other church one-up them at the last moment. "Operation Plymouth" became its code name—OP, for short. "Do you have enough kids for OP?" Fanny asked Meredith one Sunday in October, her hand up to her mouth. Meredith nodded in silence.

It was decided that on November 11 the whole crowd who would actually be the OP, even the kids, would meet at Bethel for a secret meeting. They recruited Anne Hutchinson, a member of the church who'd retired after thirty-seven years of teaching American history at William James. And they gave her this mandate: Tell us about that first Thanksgiving.

Fifty-nine really eager people met in the sanctuary, where they pulled the worship chairs into a kind of half-circle for Anne Hutchinson. Meredith and most of her zealots were a bit wary about involving Anne, who tended, even in her silence, to put a nonverbal kibosh on almost everything innovative at Bethel. But no one in the congregation was better qualified to tell the story, and they figured she'd feel snubbed if they didn't give her the opportunity.

"What you must know," she told them, "is the depth of heart of these people. For what Bradford records is that on that first Thanksgiving—an entire day given to feast-making for God's blessings on his people—there was real reason to celebrate."

Meredith was pleased. Ms. Hutchinson seemed almost upbeat.

"They'd made it through the first year," she said. "They were alive. Some of the aborigines were there, of course—"

Meredith looked at Mark Winslow, who'd taught with Hutchinson, as if he could explain. She thought aborigines were Australian. "Aborigines—" she said, interrupting.

"Or, as we call them today, Native Americans," Ms. Hutchinson conceded. "And while we're talking terms, the settlers really weren't Puritans—they were Pilgrims."

"Not Puritans?" Pastor Barnes said.

The old woman smiled graciously. "The Puritans wanted simply to purify the church—not leave it. Hence the name. At Plymouth, the people were far more radical." She smiled again. "I'm quite sure that no one in this church would really like their worship. No one here could have possibly sat through two-hour sermons. No choir, no special music—"

"We just want to make a kind of picture," Meredith said, afraid of where Ms. Hutchinson was heading. "We don't have to like them." She looked around and laughed.

"I see," Ms. Hutchinson said.

"So they'd had a good year?" Meredith said, trying to bring back some lightness. "They had every reason to be thankful—good crops?"

"Like I said, they were alive," Ms. Hutchinson said, "and that was significant. If you believe Bradford—and most everyone does—then, you have to understand that their joy came simply and almost exclusively from their being alive."

"What exactly do you mean?" Scott Foreman asked.

"There were no comforts, of course," Ms. Hutchinson said. "Nothing—no streets, no toilets, no furnaces, no Holiday Inns. There were no freezers, no microwaves, no smorgasbords for Sunday dinner. And all the while, as Bradford says, they had to face an angry people just outside the boundaries of their community—the native Americans didn't exactly take to these folks with open arms."

She looked at them strangely. "You've considered, I hope, that your entire presentation may be offensive to our native American community?"

Meredith hadn't thought of that and wondered what on earth church could have to do with offending people anyway.

"You're being careful how you outfit yourself to look Iroquois, aren't you?" She pulled a hand up in front of her face, discretely, and covered the giggle. "My word, look at the mess about baseball teams—Atlanta Braves, and all of that. You know, you could have a whole war party here inside of twenty minutes, a huge protest."

For just a moment, Pastor Barnes felt the fear his Massachusetts ancestors might have experienced.

"But this is what you want to know," Ms. Hutchinson said. "More than anything else—this is what you need to remember. More than half of their number died that first year—remember that." She swept her hand over half their number, the group in the church, swept away the whole north half of the group, women and children, old men and maidens. "You," she said, "all of you—dead that first year."

And then she did something no one would have guessed. "Move," she commanded, and she pointed them out to the fellowship hall. "Go on," she said. "Just for a moment, leave. All of you are dead."

They left, slowly, almost bewildered.

Ms. Anne Hutchinson then looked Meredith Cleghorn right straight in the eyes and said, "They're all gone. Now you pray." She pointed a long bony finger. "Now you thank the Lord for all of his blessings," she said, in what seemed almost a commanding sneer. "You buried half your number that first winter. Now thank God."

Meredith looked at the empty chairs and felt terribly uncomfortable, oddly exposed with so few of them left, many of her disciples departed. She looked for Pastor Barnes for help, but he, like so many others, was gone.

"Go on," Ms. Hutchinson said. "Pray."

The clamps on her insides tightened. Certainly she didn't mean it, Meredith thought.

"If you can't pray, then laugh," she commanded once again, "celebrate."

And Meredith said, "I can't.

The old woman nodded as if her sermon had finished itself.

■ ■ ■

Later that month Bethel's Live Thanksgiving— Operation Plymouth—went off, but not exactly the way it had been conceived. The committee dumped the bake sale and the free candy corn.

And the Lord allowed them perfect weather. Hundreds drove past the church. The Post-Dispatch gave it headline coverage with on-the-spot reporters.

"Strange," people said, when they came away. Wasn't exactly the party they expected to find. Not that it was dark and somber either—just less, well, here-and-now than they had expected. Kind of a serious tone, people said, scratching their heads, but then maybe that's what it was like to be a Pilgrim and to be there, giving thanks, they told themselves.

"Odd folks," people said about those Pilgrims. "Really religious."

It was, for Bethel, a success in very many ways.

James Calvin Schaap (jschaap@dordt.edu) is a writer and professor of English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.