I never thought that I would have had the will power to fast for more than just a day. And maybe I had a good excuse since most of my friends in the Fast for Families tent agreed that I was already too thin and lanky. However, after I got through the first day of fasting from food something happened: my desire to keep fasting had grown.
At the Fast for Families tent on the National Mall, I had the distinct honor to lead the evening prayer and blessing over the fasters each night. I became so deeply moved by their witness, particularly by the group of core fasters who fasted from all food for twenty-two days. At a time when the media had pronounced immigration reform as dead, I felt I had to give more as a demonstration of the deepening commitment of our network of faith communities to immigrants’ rights, and winning just and humane immigration reform.
Nearly two million people of have been deported in the last five years and more than 200,000 parents of U.S. citizens have been deported in just the last two years. Our country is in a undergoing a moral crisis because of our broken immigration system, and it is our moral responsibility to do all we can to not only alleviate the suffering but to work to end this stain on our nation. We have to continue to work to keep families together, to strengthen refugee resettlement and to further our capacity to integrate newcomers and build welcoming communities in our country.
Fasting for spiritual purification and political protest is not new. We have witnessed fasting as part of a tradition beginning with the prophetic texts and moving onward to our time in which human rights leaders such as Ghandi, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez who lead the way in fasting for a just cause. Last summer, many of our partners in the Interfaith Immigration Coalition (IIC) lead 40 days of prayer and fasting, launching Fast Action for Immigration Reform wherein 10,000 people from the faith community signed up to fast at least one day. This was a positive step to refocus our movement spiritually, but it did not garner enough attention publicly.
When the Service Employees International Union leader, Eliseo Medina, invited CWS to help organize the Fast4Families: A Call for Immigration Reform and Citizenship we were thrilled to join. Eliseo had grown up a migrant farmworker, and joined the United Farm Workers where he learned to organize from Cesar Chavez.
Eliseo’s vision to set up a fasting tent outside of the U.S. Capitol elevated the action of fasting to a new level. At first, there was mixed response and some were skeptical of us setting up a tent on the middle of the National Mall. CWS Communion Members such as the African Methodist Episcopal, American Baptist Church, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Episcopalian Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist and many others joined the efforts by leading prayers, songs and bringing a message at the nightly prayer service.
As the fast continued, it began to draw more attention as four core fasters went for days on just water, and solidarity fasters grew by the numbers joining for just one day or as many as ten days. Everyone who walked into the fasting tent, found themselves transformed in some way. Countless members of Congress started coming by the tent, we lead a procession to Speaker John Boehner’s office to invite him down to the fasting tent, which he never accepted.
As the fast continued through Thanksgiving, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama came by and held the withered shoe of a migrant, left behind in the desert. The shoe had been recovered by the Samaritan ministry of my home church, the Good Shepherd United Church of Christ. It was a transformational moment for Obamas, which touched their hearts, even as the White House deportation policies continue at record numbers of 1,100 per day.
Every night in the tent – sometimes surrounded by cold winds and snow – we prayed together that this sacrifice would touch the hearts of our decision makers and help them to find compassion. Yet we also found ourselves being touched, inspired and transformed. We found ourselves renewed and we found new spiritual fuel to keep up the struggle for just and humane immigration reform.
As the 2013 legislative calendar came to a close last week, both Representative Bob Goodlatte, Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and Speaker Boehner changed their tone on immigration inferring it would be at the top of Congress’ agenda next year and most analysts agree the Fast for Families was part of this revival. I think our prayers are going to be answered; it’s just a matter of time, hard work and the continued building of our movement.
Rev. Noel Andersen, Grassroots Coordinator for Immigrants’ Rights