THE BLOG
12/02/2013 08:34 am ET Updated Feb 01, 2014

Fasting for Families: When We Act, We Can Change the World

I came to fast to bring attention to the moral need for immigration reform. I began for one day, but decided to fast for seven. My husband, Paul, the union leader, joined me for five. And this is how organizing for justice can go -- just one day more.

It was just before Thanksgiving. We were fasting to touch Speaker John Boehner's heart. We want him to give us a vote on immigration on the floor of the House as the majority of Americans want, as a majority of Republicans want, but as the Tea Party opposes. We fasted to bring attention to the condition of 11 million people living in the shadows; of 463 people who died in the desert last year trying to cross into a land where they might have greater opportunity even if they risked their lives; for the U.S. children who have lost parents to deportation. This is an inhumane and broken system. We can win that vote for immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship IF politics were not getting in the way.

Eliseo Medina, the courageous leader from the Service Employees International Union, thought the movement for immigration reform should promote a fast to underscore the moral importance of this issue and the sacrifice that people were willing to make for it. We first met Eliseo when he was 21 and a young organizer with the United Farmworkers and we were young organizers in Chicago. He was told by the Farmworkers to look us up -- and we became partners in the movement for justice. We also gave him a coat since he wasn't prepared for how cold those Chicago winters were.

Eliseo began his fast on November 12. He was joined by two other long term fasters, Dae Joon Yoon Director of NAKASEC (the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium) from Los Angeles and Cristian Avila from Mi Familia Vota in Arizona. They have been joined by thousands (and on Tuesday, as evangelical and other churches and other organizations join in) perhaps over a million solidarity fasters who join for a day to several days.

Paul and Heather Booth joined for a week.

It seemed feasible enough to give up food for a day. We were used to doing that on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, where you fast for a day to reflect on all you did that you wished you had done differently or that you didn't do and wished you did. Those sins of omission and commission -- and the acts of so many others that you wish you might organize in order to change.

During that fast we say the following from the book of Isaiah:

Isaiah called out, on behalf of G-d, on Yom Kippur -- the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year:

'What is the fast I demand of you?
What is a day to press down your ego?
Is it ben ding down your head like a bulrush?
Sitting on sack-cloth and ashes?
No!
This is the fast that I have chosen:
Break the handcuffs put on by wicked power:
Undo the yoke of heavy burden:
Let the oppressed go free.
Share your bread with the hungry:
Bring the homeless to your own house
When you see the naked, clothe them:
Don't hide yourself: they are your flesh and blood.' "

We take this seriously: This is the fast I have chosen: Break the handcuffs put on by wicked power; Undo the yoke of heavy burden. Let the oppressed go free!

We take it as a command to ORGANIZE for a more just world.

Usually after one day we are ravenous and ready for the wonderful meal of the break fast.

So we joined the fasters in the tent on the Mall, just in front of the Capitol.

The day was spent telling our story of why we were fasting and hearing the stories of others. The Dreamer who has not seem his grandparents in years. The pastor whose faith says we all are the children of G-d. The climate activist who decided that all our concerns for the planet also are tied to the lives of those on the planet. The Korean organizer who in servicing his community realized that we need to tie in with the struggle for all of our communities.

We received dignitaries -- Vice President Biden came the day I was there. Pastors. Mothers and Grandmothers. Children came by to see us. On previous days Minority Leader Pelosi came and many Democratic Members of Congress. Two Republicans came -- Congressman Jeff Denham and David Valadao, both with very substantial percentages of immigrants in their California districts.

And the press started coming -- to break through to the media and perhaps touch John Boehner's heart.

After the first day, I began to have some headaches.

Then a loggy kind of overall feeling... a little groggy, foggy. But the time in the tent made me feel more connected and on point than on most days.

By day five I began to have a few more symptoms from lack of food. Eyes began to twitch and my legs began to cramp. I found my heart would race if I went upstairs. And then my heart would race at various moments.

But I knew even more deeply in my heart that this was such an important struggle.

As I felt weaker, I felt even more strongly the commitment to the effort as we could see the way the news was spreading and the impact we were having.

By December 1, Eliseo, DJ and Cristian had been fasting 20 days. When President Obama and the first lady came by the tent at the end of last week to offer their support for the fasters and their goals, they expressed their deep respect for the passion and determination of Eliseo, DJ and Cristian who have now been fasting for three weeks. They also voiced concern for their health -- a concern that many of us now share.

We fast because of what we learned throughout of our lives in the movement for justice
It was especially moving because this is the Thanksgiving season.

And we are thankful.

We are thankful that the fast is drawing attention to the plight of immigrants in this country.
We are thankful that we were able to spend this time with our precious children, grandchildren and family. We think all families' children are precious and should have time to celebrate as we can -- together.

We are also thankful that we have led our lives as part of movements for justice and democracy.

I began organizing in the civil rights movement, with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. In 1964 I went to Mississippi with the Freedom Summer Project when I was 18 years old in order to expand voting rights for African Americans. Many remember that Project because three young Summer Volunteers, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, were killed when they were handed over to the Ku Klux Klan from the sheriff who had arrested them. During the search for their bodies, the bodies of eight other black men were found -- often hands bound or feet chopped off -- lynched. But those murders were never investigated. It was an uncertain and frightening time. And many wondered would we ever have a time of greater freedom and justice? But by the next year, the Voting Rights Act became the law of the land. Mississippi now has among the highest percentage of African American elected officials of any state in the country. We still have a long way to go. There are increasing attacks on voting rights and growing inequality in this country. But we can change the world for the better -- against the odds -- when we organize and expose the moral mission that motivates our work.

Paul began his movement work as the leader of the largest student organization, working for student rights and against the war in Vietnam. Paul and I met at a demonstration against the war in Vietnam. And because we organized, we helped to end that war. We have a long way to go, but we can change the world when we organize from a moral purpose.

Since those early days, Paul has been a leader in the labor movement. Executive Assistant to the President of AFSCME, fighting for decent conditions for working people and building alliances beyond the union for equal treatment for all. I founded a training center for organizers (Midwest Academy, celebrating its 40th year with Academy Awards this Wednesday, December 4: www.midwestacademy.com) and directed large scale issue campaigns on health care, financial reform. Now I'm advising the Alliance for Citizenship, the remarkable coalition involving hundreds of organizations, working on immigration reform.

Come Join the Fast. Come Join the Movement for Dignity and Respect for All.

And we are so thankful we did.

And you can, too.

December 1 - 3 are days of fasting, prayer and action.

It is a time to show the moral commitment behind the struggle for immigration reform.

Go towww.fast4families.org and participate wherever you are, in whatever way you can.

It is a time to tell the stories of the lives of people impacted by broken families, unjust conditions and abuse all because they seek a better life for themselves and their children.

So we ask you to join us.

We ask you to send a message to John Boehner and all those Republicans blocking a vote in the House.

Because so many are organizing, because so many are fasting, we will win immigration reform.

The only question is will it be easy for the opposition or will it be hard for them... will it take political repercussions or will they listen with their hearts to the moral messages.
It is only a question of when.

How many lives will be sacrificed? How many hearts will be broken and families torn apart?

In the depths of the struggle for civil rights, Dr. King was asked by frustrated civil rights workers: "How long will it take before we find freedom? How long?"

And Dr. King answered: "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

What Dr. King and Eliseo Medina, and the thousands, even millions of others who fast, pray and act for immigration reform know, is that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice when we put our hearts and hands into it and organize and act and pray and fast for freedom and justice.

Come join us.

It will be wonderful to be on the right side of history. To Fast. To Act. To Change the World.