On the first day of Advent, I began to fast for immigration reform.
I’m not a recent immigrant or a political activist. But I’m a mother, a teacher, and a Christian living in Asheville, N.C., a community affected by our broken immigration system. And I was raised in a faith that tells me that this country should not have an invisible class of people or a justice system that tears apart families. That’s not justice to me.
So Dec. 1-3, I joined the National Days to Act, Fast, and Pray in solidarity with those who have been fasting for three weeks in a tent on the National Mall. Their goal is to urge the House GOP, specifically U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), to call for a vote on immigration reform.
On Facebook, I watched videos of the fasters walk to Speaker Boehner’s office and ask to meet with him. When the staff member refused their request, they shared their stories and then before they left, they prayed. This wasn’t hysterical public prayer, the kind I associate with radical street preachers, but measured words, asking for the House to vote on an immigration bill passed by the Senate this summer.
The day after Thanksgiving, with all the pressure to consume, I decided to join this fast after seeing a Facebook post from Lisa Sharon Harper, director of mobilizing at Sojourners:
“OMG!!!! President Obama AND First Lady Michelle Obama just visited us in the #Fast4Families tent on the National Mall!!! They spent 45 minutes with us listening to stories and sharing their reflections on the state of immigration reform. I wept when they entered the tent!!”
Her next Facebook post showed a picture of the Obamas sitting in a tight circle with the core fasters who had chosen to consume only water and stay inside this tent. Her comment for this photo said: “the tan Uggs on the left are mine!” You couldn’t see Lisa’s face in the photo, but you could see those boots in the circle.
Later, she posted a picture of core fasters in a posed shot with the president and first lady. The fasters wore hooded sweatshirts with the words: “Act. Fast.” They were identified by the day of their fast and name: Rudy Lopez, day 6; Eliseo Medina, day 18; Christian Avila, day 18; Lisa Sharon Harper, day 18, and DY Yoon, day 18. Today, many complete their 21st day of fasting.
As the only female faster in this photo, and with a nod to her footwear, Lisa drew me into this effort that commanded the attention of our public leaders. So often, political figures at the national level become to me like Barbie and GI Joe, stick-figure parodies of real people, disassociated from the problems facing our communities. But because I was able to bear witness to Lisa’s genuine enthusiasm, I wanted to be a part of this movement that had received visits from Vice President Joe Biden, as well as Democratic and Republican elected officials.
And it made sense to start on Advent, which comes from the Latin word “adventus,” meaning “coming.” Advent is the four-week season of preparation and waiting before the birth of Jesus. As Diana Butler Bass writes in her piece “Fox News’ War on Advent,” “During these weeks, churches are not merry. There is a muted sense of hope and expectation.” She reminds us that the biblical texts for Advent point to lifting up the poor and oppressed based on God’s vision for justice.
The political gridlock that we have witnessed in our country does not belong to a people waiting for justice, acting for peace. Here in my living room and in the classroom where I teach, I can fast for three days, as an ally in action with those who have lost so much. On my second day of fasting, I learned via Facebook that the #Fast4Families and its core fasters would be recognized by Rep. Joe Garcia (D-Fla.) on the floor during the House session that night. Political leaders are taking notice of the action, even as I am fasting in my kitchen in North Carolina, cooking dinner for my children, grading papers for tomorrow’s class.
Here in Western North Carolina, my friends the Rev. Austin Rios and his wife, Jill, ministered at an Episcopal church, La Capilla de Santa Maria, where the majority of the parishioners are undocumented. Indeed, their deacon was deported, forced to sign a voluntary departure after being denied political asylum. On a weekly basis, it seemed, my friends would relay stories of parishioners separated from their families, by virtue of being at the wrong traffic stop — at a checkpoint — at the wrong time. I often wondered what I could do to help, as these injustices seem invisible to those without a connection to the immigrant community.
In this season of waiting, amid the season of consuming, there is something I can do: I can act, fast, and pray.
Mallory McDuff, Ph.D. teaches at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C. She is the author of Sacred Acts: How Churches are Working to Protect Earth's Climate.