This spring, more than 25 Georgetown University students declared that they would not eat until the university administration agreed to give its support staff a living wage. The nine-day strike followed years of pressure from the Living Wage Coalition, a student group founded in 2001 several months after a similar organization at Harvard succeeded in raising the minimum wage for their campus employees.
Armed with research showing that Georgetown workers earned well below what is considered a living wage for Washington, D.C., the Living Wage Coalition thoughtfully and strategically organized students and faculty, negotiated with administration officials, hosted weekly worker appreciation breakfasts, and built relationships with D.C. labor unions and advocacy groups.
The hunger strike coincided with Holy Week, which marks the end of Lent, a season of reflection and sacrifice. Strikers reminded university officials of Georgetowns roots in the Jesuit tradition and its commitment, as it says in the universitys mission statement, to "live generously in service to others." When administration officials said they didnt have the money to raise wages, students reminded them that Georgetown had raised $15 million for a boathouse. Was a boathouse more important than people? Student Gladys Cisneros pointed out that university President John J. DeGioia may teach an ethics and global poverty class, but "when it comes to them [the administration] actually changing something, they dont want to do it."
By publicly highlighting the discrepancy between what the university said it stood for and what it was actually doing, the students awakened the moral consciousness of the student body, staff, and administration. Their dedication and courage forced Georgetowns elite to confront their commitment to the poor. And their fast reminds us all that the real example of religious commitment is not found in the rituals we keep, but in who we become and what we do because of them.
THE PROPHET ISAIAH put it this way: "Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free.... Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?" (Isaiah 58:6-7) What Isaiah tells us is that fasting is not about denying the self. Nor is it a ritual in self-flagellation. Rather, it is about personal and societal transformation.
Fasting, when it is done prayerfully and reflectively, can intensify ones focus on God and sharpen ones awareness of the needs of the poor and hungry. It is a profound and personal experience, and when lived out practicallyin hunger strikescan indeed inspire societal or political change.
Hunger strikes have been used by woman suffragists, Irish nationalists, and Palestinian prisoners. They have been a means to protest the Vietnam War, apartheid in South Africa, the war in Iraq, and most recently the removal of Terri Schiavos feeding tube. Few hunger strikes are successful, and they are often criticized for being frivolous and self-serving. Indeed, Mohandas Gandhi, whose hunger strike helped curb violence and unify Hindus and Muslims in India, warned prisoners against hastily embarking on hunger strikes, especially for trivial reasons.
But when done right they can be a powerful tool in nonviolent direct action.
At Georgetown, the administration in the end accepted the students proposal for a wage increase and agreed to give contract employees the right to unionize, English language classes, and access to the library. For students who care about social justice but doubt their own ability to change things, this was welcome news. And its a reminder that, as striker Elena Stewart said, "ones belief in God and in the fundamental goodness and dignity of every person must be grounded in action and not just wishing for things to change."
Lindsay Morgan was a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C., when this article appeared.