11/22/2011 04:41 pm ET | Updated Jan 22, 2012

American Pilgrims ... of All Faiths

Visualize "pilgrims."

If you just imagined early settlers in drab colors with high hats and buckled shoes, you're wrong -- and probably about more than the wardrobe. Let's look deeper at pilgrims and pilgrimages.

Pilgrimages: A pilgrimage is a spiritual journey. Some of us have made such a trip to our hometown, or back to the "old country" of our ancestors.

Often the word entails a religious connotation. In the Middle Ages, pilgrimages to the Holy Land were believed to bring merit not only for this life but for the next. One of the top reasons for the Crusades was to reopen blocked pilgrimage routes -- to their way of thinking their eternal souls were at risk and worth fighting for.

Armchair Pilgrimages: Rough or extended travel is trying. The pay-off is that travel expands your horizons and exposes you to all sorts of different sights and experiences. So travel is just one step removed from exploration. Over the course of history those who couldn't travel relied on mixing their imaginations with others' words to escape into a different world: first with storytellers around a fire, then books and magazines and now internet images.

One of the first books in the English language, The Canterbury Tales, was pilgrimage literature: a collection of stories purportedly told by pilgrims on their way to a religious shrine in England. With the dawn of the Protestant Era -- which claimed salvation was based on faith in God's work, not man's -- the point system fell out of favor and with it the urgency of Christian pilgrimage.

Pilgrims in America: America's first Pilgrims came here not for religious favor but for religious freedom, and America has been holding forth the torch ever since.

Today we have remarkable pilgrimages within America. Asian religions frequently entail pilgrimages. In recent years as well as the distant past, Sikhs are one of the religious groups which have been persecuted in Northern India. In America they worship openly and freely.

Several times I have walked in parade with tens of thousands of Sikhs gathered in America from multiple states and Canada. They travel great distances in honor of the Guru Granath Sahib -- their holy scriptures. In a procession of old world pomp and reverence, decorated floats play chants to encourage the faithful who walk alongside prayer. A sea of festival colors decks the crowd. Here it is rare to find a white face or unturbaned male head. Were it not for the English signs you would think you were in India, or at least on a Bollywood movie set.

Pilgrims from America: Some religious pilgrims leave America -- not from persecution, but from a drive to honor sacred sites which lie overseas. Jews and Christians still flock to the Holy Land, but this can not compare to the draw of Mecca upon the devout Muslim.

Being one of the five pillars of the Islam, every able Muslim must make at least one hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in their life time. During the pilgrimage week they follow rituals honored through the centuries, such as walking certain trails, circling the holy stone within the Kabaa, and throwing rocks at Satan.

The culmination of hajj is the Feast of the Sacrifice. Although the meaning of sacrifice is different than in Judaism and Christianity where sacrificial blood covers sin, this feast day commemorates a great event that the three faiths share: Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son. Fortunately, at the last moment God provided a lamb, so no children get killed.

Since only Muslims are allowed inside Mecca, most of us will not experience the real thing. Some American mosques hold open community events which reenact the stations of the hajj -- I have done this and found it very interesting -- but otherwise we must rely on photos and reports of those present.

Hajjis, those who have done hajj, tell me how pleasurable it was being part of the white-robed crowd from all nations united for a common purpose. Outsiders can doubtless recall a time when they too felt a sense of unity -- on a sports field perhaps or singing in a group.

Colorful Pilgrims: A few months ago a Muslim friend showed me photos from 'umra, a trip to Mecca's shrine at a non-hajj time of year. In Saudi Arabia women must always wear a black robe, or abayya when in public. This is what I expected to see at the holy place, but surprise! My stereotype was wrong. Low and behold peppering the crowd were women in colored, even flowered clothing. Outside of hajj, it is the coverage that counts in this holy place, not the color.

That brings us full circle to our misconceptions about the original American Pilgrims. The most obvious is the idea that they always wore brown, grey, or black. Compared to other nations, America's obsession with the present time makes us like a boat mid-bay, unaware that we are moored with an anchor. Our mish-mash history has morphed the Pilgrims, who were mostly Separatists, into Puritans. The latter group came later, bringing austerity. But, color, color, color! Most Americans are surprised to discover it was there in Plymouth.

Of Plymouth Plantation, Governor Bradford's readable account of America's Pilgrims, is full of more iconoclastic discoveries about these early settlers.

"By all means justice should be done. Nevertheless, some of the more ignorant colonists objected that an Englishman should be put to death for an Indian... at last the murders... freely confessed to all the Indian had accused them of... So they were condemned by the jury, and executed." Event of 1638 as narrated by Governor Bradford.

This excerpt illustrates that from the beginning there were good and bad immigrants to America: the majority who sought peace and justice were put at risk by a small number of troublemakers. And the trend continued. It is more fashionable now to imagine the reverse, but how can a great nation be built on a faulty foundation?

The Mayflower Compact of the Pilgrims was drafted by people who respected the rights of Native Americans. Unfortunately this philosophy was not always followed in American history. But it was this good document which became the basis of state constitutions, and ultimately the United States Constitution itself.

On this Thanksgiving Day let us truly give thanks that we live in a nation that welcomes people of all faiths and encourages them to live together in harmony.