US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Activists end immigration fast as thousands of others take up the cause

By Lauren Markoe | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

c. 2013 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON (RNS) Sapped by three weeks of a water-only diet, three activists for immigration reform ended their fasts Tuesday with a morsel of bread blessed by a priest and “passed the fast on” to others who hope to keep attention focused on the issue.

“You have truly put your faith in action,” said retired Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, one in a small crowd of political and clerical dignitaries who came to the National Mall to praise those who have gone without food in a bid to pressure Republican House leaders to pass an immigration reform bill. Also seated alongside the quiet and wan fasters: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; the Rev. Bernice King, the daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

In recent weeks, the fasters have attracted high-profile visitors, including President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden, to the heated tents where the fasters have been living on the National Mall. Now the “Fast for Families,” organized by a broad coalition of labor, immigrant and Christian groups enters a new phase as the original group of fasters begin to recover from the physical ordeal and a larger group—many of them political and pastoral celebrities—take up the cause.

It’s also a subtle acknowledgment that the movement is shifting into low gear for a long-term fight that will take more than four hunger strikers to overcome. One by one, hand-fashioned wood crosses were removed from the necks of the initial fasters and placed around the necks of those who had just begun to deny themselves food. Unlike the fasters who lived in a tent without food for three weeks, most of the new fasters will keep their day jobs and decide for themselves what form the fast will take.

Some involved in the weeks-old movement said they were surprised that it drew so much interest — from the president to tourists visiting the capital. But others said that it is a natural response to the heartache suffered by immigrant families separated from loved ones, living in the shadow of the law and dying along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Fasting is an effective response to a dysfunctional government that refuses to help immigrants in need, said the Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of the progressive Christian group Sojourners, who began to fast Tuesday but does not know for how long he will go without food. “Fasting is a weapon,” he said. “It is a weapon of spiritual warfare.”

Few of the new fasters plan or are expected to last as long as activists Eliseo Medina, Dae Joong Yoon and Cristian Avila, who went 22 days without food, or Lisa Sharon Harper, who drank only juice. All were checked by doctors Tuesday, who found they lost an average of 20 pounds each. According to “Fast For Families” organizers, more than 3,000 people nationwide have pledged to fast for at least a day in the name of immigration reform.

Immigration reform stalled in Congress after the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in June. House Speaker John Boehner has refused to put the issue on the House’s schedule this year, and many activists worry that action is less likely next year as lawmakers set their sights on the midterm elections.

King likened the fasting movement to the boycott of segregated buses that kicked off the civil rights movement in 1955. “Let’s continue to fast together,” she said, invoking her father’s words, “and not get weary.”