Today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. I grew up in a small evangelical church that only paid attention to the Christian calendar on Christmas and Easter. But over many years now, I have learned to celebrate the richness of all the Christian seasons from my friends in more liturgical traditions and from marrying a Church of England priest!
Lent offers us the much-needed spiritual preparation for Easter. Ash Wednesday is the place to begin; and that often includes fasting — in different ways and traditions. At Sojourners, we usually have a big staff pancake breakfast on Shrove Tuesday morning, the day before Ash Wednesday. But today, many of us are fasting.
Ash Wednesday doesn’t begin a hunger strike, but rather a season of self-examination, spiritual reflection, repentance, sacrifice, and focused prayer. Lent is a time to examine our hearts and lives, to acknowledge our sins, to look for the ways we are not choosing the gospel or welcoming those whom Jesus calls us to.
You probably haven’t heard of Sioux County, Iowa — but if you’re ever on a flight from Boston to Los Angeles, you’ll fly right over us and know you’re at the midpoint of your trip. We’re just about exactly in the middle of the country.
But aside from U.S. geography, Sioux County isn’t often known for being in the middle. We’re found in the 4th congressional district of the state — the constituency represented by Steve King, where close to 80% of our electorate is Republican.
Recently, Sioux County, Iowa was blessed with the visit of Eliseo Medina, a hero in immigrants’ rights movements for over 40 years. Eliseo was a key part of the farmworkers movement and went on strike with Cesar Chavez. He served as a board member of United Farm Workers from 1973 to 1978.
At the Sioux Center Library, approximately 130 people gathered, overflowing the room. College students and professors, church members, and Latino workers congregated to listen to a prophetic voice calling in the wilderness for God’s justice to the powerless and voiceless in our midst. Congressman King was invited but did not attend.
Imagine a young girl growing up in a small town going off to college then law school. She then takes the bar examination and becomes a licensed attorney. She has accomplished what most people would call the American Dream.
However, one thing is missing — her father. You see, her father was deported when she was three years old and they have been separated ever since. She has lived 30 years without him.
Her father came to this country from Nigeria. He saw America as the land of opportunity. Her mother tells her that before coming to America he believed the streets were paved with gold. I’m not sure if his statement was figurative or literal, but I do know that he saw it as a wonderful opportunity.
Her father came to this country as a student on a student visa. He was able to obtain a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. He worked hard in school and earned both degrees. He longed to begin his career as an architect in America. He desperately wanted his piece of the American Dream.
I completed my fast. I fasted for seven days as a participant in the Fast for Families: A Call for Immigration Reform & Citizenship. I fasted because Jesus cared about the "least of these" in his society, and as a follower of Jesus, I'm called to do the same. More specifically, I undertook this fast to raise awareness of these particular "least of these" in our society.
I was quite certain that some within my community of influence would disagree with me on this particular spiritual practice, whether theologically, politically, or socially. The pushback I did receive turned out to be more theological than anything. Perhaps that is just because of the circles I am in, but it went something like this, “I’m all for fasting as a personal spiritual thing, but associating it with a political cause is just wrong. Jesus came to save us from our sins and keep us individually out of hell.” The assumption is that Christianity has nothing to do with Public Square.
I'm still processing the political and governmental, not to mention partisan, implications of immigration reform. I'm certainly not under the impression that one simple bill at a federal level will "fix" immigration any more than the Civil Rights Act of 1968 fixed discrimination. Which of course is not to say that either is unimportant.
I’m a white southerner, ordained Baptist, and have built a career over the past decade working on a broad spectrum of projects in the civic sector. In that time I’ve been blessed to lead and work on some of the most prominent issues of social change throughout the globe. Whether it was working on funding for our veterans, organs for kids who need transplants, better schools and public transit, justice for Trayvon Martin, freedom for the Wilmington 10, or on political campaigns — I’ve had the opportunity to help grow and lead some of our nation’s largest and most vital organizations. Now, inspired by those in our generation who choose to dream instead of choosing despair, I’ve stepped out on faith to join the immigration reform movement. I hope you’ll pledge to join it as well.
One of the most meaningful things I get to do in my work as a Ph.D. student in political science is assist Jim Wallis with a course he teaches at Georgetown every fall titled "Faith, Social Justice, and Public Life." Jim is well known as the founder and leader of Sojourners and as a lifelong advocate for social justice. Through lectures, discussions, and guest speakers, our students learn about how and why clergy and lay people of various religious backgrounds advocate for public policies as expressions of their faith commitments. This fall, the push for comprehensive immigration reform was one of the case studies we examined with our students.
I'm no expert in immigration policy. But, as a political scientist, I can offer an informed assessment about when, why, and how the House of Representatives will pass the reform in 2014. This will be the subject of a future post. For now, though, I want to highlight some distinctive features of the debate that I have noticed as an observer of religion in American politics. I do have a layman's interest in the theological justifications being offered in support of (and, perhaps surprisingly, against) comprehensive immigration reform. But for now, I will focus mostly on the politics.
Saying an opening prayer at the Nelson Mandela Memorial Service on Wednesday, in Washington, D.C. was both an honor and a blessing for me. The theme of the homily, by my good friend Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak, was “it ain’t over until God says it’s done.”
I sat there listening to those words from an African American gospel hymn in the midst of my own circumstance of being on the ninth day of a water-only fast for comprehensive immigration reform. In my weakened condition, I was grateful that I had done the opening prayer and wouldn’t have to do the closing prayer! But fasting focuses you and it made me consider how Nelson Mandela would feel about a broken immigration system that is shattering the lives of 11 million immigrants, separating parents from children, and undermining the best values of our nation.
In our nightly meeting at what is now a packed fasting tent, I could imagine Nelson Mandela there with us, telling us to never give up until we win this victory for so many vulnerable people reminding us, "it ain’t over until God says it’s done." Or, as he would tell cynical pundits and politicians, “it is always impossible until it is done.” Today, following a procession from the Capitol which will now include many members of Congress, we will go to that tent and proclaim that immigration reform is not over, and we won’t give up until it’s done.
(Editors Note: This post contains updates from Jim Wallis as he experiences the "Fast for Families: A Call for Immigration Reform and Citizenship," taking place on the National Mall.)
Dec. 10: This is the eighth day of the water fast for me and the 30th day of the Fast for Families with many people coming to participate in the tent — almost 200 so far.
This has become a very spiritual place, even a holy place. And when people come here, including members of Congress, senators, faith leaders, celebrities, heads of organizations, and so many “ordinary” people, and undocumented immigrants themselves, the stories being told are changing people’s minds and hearts.
For the past three years immigration reform has taken a prominent role in my mind and heart, especially since the Latino college ministry I direct, InterVarsity Latino Fellowship (LaFe), has student members who are undocumented. I have heard stories from our InterVarsity students who have faced insurmountable financial difficulties in paying for college, the fear of being separated from their family members and deep depression and anxiety over the possibility of their own deportation.
It was three years ago at a national Latino Student Conference that I was first confronted with the great sorrow and pain that many of our Latino Dreamer students were carrying. I had one student who had worked very hard to earn an engineering degree but was completely overwhelmed with the sadness that he would not be able to work in his field because he did not have working papers. This young man, who had been a top leader in one of our InterVarsity chapters, had incredible leadership skills, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and great obedience in serving the needs of other students on his campus. He was a model InterVarsity student if there ever were one.
Yet, the sadness, fear and bitterness he expressed to me overwhelmed my own heart and made me realize I had to do more to help these dedicated and gifted students who were living without hope.
Since then I have been arrested for the cause of immigration reform with other committed clergy in New York City. I have raised my voice loudly within my own ministry to make the known the academic and pastoral needs of our own undocumented student members. And now I believe it is time to do deeper spiritual battle through fasting and prayer.
At one point a desperate man whose son was possessed by a violent spirit approached Jesus; the man regularly tried to kill the boy by throwing him in fire or water. The man told Jesus he had already asked his disciples to heal the son but they didn’t have the power to do it. In his love for this father and his possessed son, Jesus healed the boy. Later when his disciples talked to him privately about why they weren’t able to take power over this demon, Jesus told them that this kind of demon could come out only by prayer and fasting.
In his book titled Fasting, Scot McKnight writes that a grievous sacred moment is what prompts us to fast and that moment is often caused by severe pain, suffering, or sorrow, which often includes the oppression of the innocent. This sorrow prompts us to focused prayer and fasting.
I entered a sun-up-to-sundown, water-only fast as part of the National Call to #Fast4Families on Dec. 3.
I fasted because of a strong conviction concerning the broken and unjust realities of the American immigration system. For our generation, immigration reform is a biblical justice issue.
To join Jim Wallis in prayer and fasting, click here.
I was grateful to be at the beginning of the Fast for Families on November 12. Courageous leaders from many communities were making an incredible sacrifice to remind our leaders what is really at stake in the fight for immigration reform. It was an honor to commission the core fasters, such as my Sojourners’ colleague Lisa Sharon Harper and Eliseo Medina, a veteran organizer and a disciple of Cesar Chavez, by placing crosses around their necks as they began abstaining from food.
After 22 days, the core fasters had grown weak, nearing the point of medical danger. When they decided to pass the fast to a new group, I was humbled to join the effort this way. On Tuesday, in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, I received the cross from Eliseo that I had given to him three weeks before.
At Tuesday’s ceremony, each of us shared why we were committing to this discipline and willing to subsist only on water for various lengths of time.
As the least productive Congress in history begins to wind down its first legislative session, immigration reform is coming to a boil.
It’s already been 160 days since the Senate passed its immigration bill and the House already has 191 co-sponsors on its bipartisan bill. Still, House Republicans have failed to take the next step and have only voted on one immigration provision so far this year — Steve King’s (R-Iowa) amendment to defund DACA and deport DREAMers.
And with King (most famous for saying young immigrants have “calves the size of cantaloupes” from lifting 75 pound bags of drugs across the border) at the helm for Republicans on immigration, it’s no wonder that they’re getting nowhere on immigration.
But the tragic irony of all of this is that King’s own constituents (myself included) overwhelmingly support immigration reform. Recent polling by The American Action Network, a conservative outside group, shows that 79 percent of voters in his district support the tenets in the Senate Gang of Eight bill. Despite that popularity, King and his shrinking list of allies in the House have kept Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) from addressing the moral crisis afflicting millions of workers, children, mothers, and fathers.
Business leaders, law enforcement officials, and evangelical Christians—key constituencies that are typically part of the Republican base—have been at the forefront of immigration reform. Given the obvious benefits of, and broad public support for, immigration reform, why are many arch-conservatives in the House of Representatives refusing to address the issue in a serious way? The answer may point to an issue that we still hesitate to talk about directly: race.
Fixing our broken immigration system would grow our economy and reduce the deficit. It would establish a workable visa system that ensures enough workers with “status” to meet employers’ demands. It would end the painful practice of tearing families and communities apart through deportations and bring parents and children out of the shadows of danger and exploitation. And it would allow undocumented immigrants—some of whom even have children serving in the U.S. military—to have not “amnesty,” but a rigorous pathway toward earned citizenship that starts at the end of the line of applicants. Again, why is there such strident opposition when the vast majority of the country is now in favor of reform?
When I asked a Republican senator this question, he was surprisingly honest: “Fear,” he said. Fear of an American future that looks different from the present.
In the contentious debate on immigration reform, undocumented immigrants are often the target of rhetorical attacks. Our political leaders fail to understand the contributions they make to our communities and economy. Too often their words deny the humanity and God-given dignity of our brothers and sisters.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) is perhaps the most notorious for inflammatory, misinformed attacks on immigrants. He has derogatorily compared them to “dogs” and recently claimed that DREAMers, young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, were drug runners with “calves the size of cantaloupes.” For far too long statements such as these have been tolerated in our society, as we have accepted the demonization of people out of racial fear and for the sake of political gain.
Sojourners has released a powerful video telling the story of Pastor Juan Luis Barco, an undocumented minister following God’s call and faithfully serving a congregation. We especially want elected officials like Rep. King and those who share his views to hear this message, so we launched the video as a TV ad running across his district.
(Editors Note: On Nov. 12, faith, immigrant rights, and labor leaders launched the “Fast for Families: A Call for Immigration Reform and Citizenship,” taking place on the National Mall. The following remarks are from Jim's speech given at the event.)
Despite the overwhelming public support — among all political stripes — to fix our broken immigration system, Washington's utter political dysfunction is blocking change.
It is time to pray and fast for a change that now feels like a "miracle." And that's what we now pray for. Pray against the racial fears and messages that are being used against immigration reform. Pray for courage and character on all sides — for Republicans who believe in an inclusive party and nation to stand up to Republicans who want an exclusive party and nation and for Democrats not to use this as a political issue for their self-interest. Pray for political leaders to do what few of them do well — to put other people's needs, especially poor and vulnerable people's needs, ahead of their own political agendas.