On November 12, faith, immigrant rights and labor leaders announced the launch of “Fast for Families: A Call for Immigration Reform and Citizenship,” taking place on the National Mall, steps away from the Capitol. On that day, Eliseo Medina, DJ Yoon, Christian Avila, and Lisa Sharon Harper began a fast to move the hearts and compassion of members of Congress to pass immigration reform with a path to citizenship.
In their statement the four fasters asked: “What is our faith, our words and our history worth if not translated into action, sacrifice and redemption?” and they added:
“The world has witnessed the beliefs and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez translate in courageous acts of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance to gain justice for a community of people who were underserved and discriminated against. We now humbly attempt to follow the examples of these great teachers and the teachings of Scripture to align our own hearts with the heart of God, who desires justice for immigrants and immediate justice for the 11 million undocumented immigrant brothers and sisters within our borders. Our faith requires nothing less. Today begins our vow to abstain from sustenance.”
The fast in Washington, DC will be in conjunction with dozens of local and solidarity fasts, events, and actions already underway in key congressional districts across the country. Fasters will be joined nationwide by groups and activists who are prepared to make sacrifices for the passage of immigration reform with a path to citizenship. To date, more than 10,000 people across the nation have joined in the effort.
But always, at the center, are the immigrant families themselves, those who have lost loved ones in the desert or whose loved ones have been deported. Last night, four immigrant children read letters they had written and which they will deliver today to members of Congress, expressing their fear and sometimes grief at having their mother or father deported.
Immigrants are among the most vulnerable persons in our midst. Every year, 400 die crossing the desert. Every year, 400,000 immigrants are deported, separating families and depriving children of a mother or father, and sometime both.
The Gospel and our Catholic faith teach us to “Welcome the Stranger in Our Midst,” and invite us to join this Gospel effort for just and comprehensive immigration reform, and to call on our friends and neighbors to set aside these days of Advent for prayer, fasting, and action on behalf of immigrant families and children.
I joined the fast on December 5, the day the original four fasters shared their testimonies. In their words I hear a familiar voice, the cry of the poor calling for justice, and inviting us into a community of solidarity. It has been a truly amazing experience, especially in these Advent days of prayer and fasting, and waiting for the coming of Christ into the world.
Every night, in tents that light up this little corner of the national mall, and in the shadows of the nation’s Capitol, fasters and friends gather to remember those who have died in the desert, and those families whose loved ones have been deported. Like a manger on the mall, the fast has attracted the powerful and humble. By day, members of Congress and even the President and First Lady have come to visit, and by night, undocumented immigrant families and people of faith come to participate in the evening vigil.
Expressions of solidarity have come from every sector imaginable: Interfaith expressions of solidarity from Christians, Jews and Muslims; support from the immigrant Dreamers and from African American youth called the Dream Defenders; Franciscans and Sisters of Mercy; the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) who helped initiate this effort; the LGBT community; the NAACP and their 1200 chapters, and the National Congress of Black Women.
Comprehensive immigration reform has been on and off the table of the Congressional agenda. Lately, it has been declared “dead” by the Speaker of the House. But the suffering of more than 11 million undocumented immigrants and the claims of the Gospel to welcome the stranger urge us to action. In the words of the fasters:
“We have heard the word “wait” in the past. Dr. King heard it. Chavez heard it. Gandhi heard it. Our communities of immigrants continue to hear it while they bear witness to families divided by deportations, students trapped in limbo bearing the weight of anxiety beyond their years, and workers brutally exploited and relegated to invisibility.
“Yet like them, we refuse to dwell on the frustrations of ‘wait.’ We rise with them and declare our moral obligation, grounded in the words of God spoken through the prophets, to move the compassion of elected leadership in the House, and to inspire a resilient movement to cease the deportations, suffering, sorrow and fear and usher a new structure of laws for the good of our country men and women and the sake of our values.
“Our voluntary sacrifice represents the urgency, the passion and commitment of a community of all religions, races, and political affiliations, to enact commonsense immigration reform this year.
“On this day, we begin our journey. We will fast and pray until the bonds of families are no longer broken. We will fast and pray until immigration reform is no longer a notion, but a reality. We will fast and pray until citizenship is no longer a dream for 11 million aspiring Americans.”
May we heed these words, and the words of this Advent season, urging us to “stay awake!” For, in the prophet Isaiah’s words: “On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom… On that day, God will come to judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted.” (Is 11:1-10)
Advent and Christmas are the time, in the Lutheran pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, “of the great reversal of all things,” and “a new ordering of all things on earth.” A time when to remember our remember the Gospel call to follow in the steps of the One whom we celebrate this season for, in Bonhoeffer’s words:
“If we want to be part of these events, Advent and Christmas, we cannot just sit there like a theater audience and enjoy all the lovely pictures. Instead, we ourselves will be caught up in this action, this reversal of all things; we must become actors on this stage.”