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Why a Climate Activist Fasted Nine Days for Immigrant Families

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This is the story of how a climate justice activist, who has dedicated the past two years of his life to stopping the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, found himself fasting nine days in a tent on the National Mall in support of immigrant families.

My story begins with pedaling my "rocket trike" 485 miles from Cleveland to Washington, D.C. to deliver a petition calling on President Obama to shut down Keystone XL's southern leg in Texas and Oklahoma. That journey culminated in early November, with a group of climate justice leaders gathering outside the White House to demand that our President extinguish this 485-mile tar sands, carbon bomb fuse before it is too late. That is what brought me to D.C., and it is why I am still here.

What brought me to the fasting tent is another story completely. Like most Americans, I support common sense immigration reform to provide a path to citizenship for our nation's undocumented immigrants. But I had never acted on this, and it was not on my radar screen when I rolled my trike up to the White House last month. Only through my friends at the Franciscan Action Network (FAN), staunch allies in the fight against Keystone XL, did I learn about a fast being planned in support of comprehensive immigration reform in Congress. Over beers one night, FAN's Patrick Carolan told me about the Fast4Families, and I felt moved to join for a day.

What motivated me to step outside of my issue silo is the inhumane treatment of 11 million of our immigrant brothers and sisters. As someone who believes all social justice issues are interrelated -- and that we are all members of one human family -- here was a chance to take a stand in defense of families being torn apart by an immigration system that flies in the face of our nation's immigrant history, and the bedrock American value of justice for all.

So I walked from Capitol Hill down to the Mall to attend the Tuesday press conference announcing the start of the fast. I anticipated something extraordinary, and was not disappointed. All that remained was to pick a day. I chose Friday night.

The moment you step into the fasting tent, you know you have entered a different dimension. It's not something I've experienced often with people I don't know (the last time, I felt it was in ceremony with my brothers and sisters of the Great Sioux Nation). In the tent, mutual respect reigns and egos melt away. Here, everyone is equal. Here, everyone has a voice. In the tent, you're family.

One of the traditions of our 24/7 fast tent community was for fasters to share the stories of what drew us here with those visiting us. My story obviously began with my mission to stop the southern leg of Keystone XL, which informed a lot of people in positions of power about this related struggle for justice. Another tradition was to ask our visitors to lead the group in prayer (in whatever way that spoke to them). This bonded us in powerful fashion.

The list of visitors while I was in the tent, including some who joined the fast, reads like a virtual Who's Who: Gloria Steinem, charismatic faith leaders, like the Reverends Bernice King, Jesse Jackson and Jim Wallis, prominent labor leaders, like Service Employees International Union President, Mary Kay Henry and Communications Workers of America President, Larry Cohen, well-known progressive activists, like Dolores Huerta and Paul and Heather Booth, Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Xavier Becerra, and Republican House members Jeff Denham and David Valadao. In all, nearly 50 lawmakers visited the tent during the month-long campaign, including my own Congressman Jared Polis from Boulder.

But the story gets more interesting. Only days after having been turned away at the White House gates attempting to deliver a petition to stop Keystone XL, top Obama White House officials were now coming to visit me and the other fasters in the tent. This was not my doing. Our visitors included Director of White House Domestic Policy Council, Cecilia Muñoz, Secretary of Labor, Tom Perez, Special Advisor to the President, Valerie Jarrett and Vice President Joe Biden. Before he left the tent, I asked the Vice President for a meeting to discuss shutting down Keystone's southern leg. His initial reaction was: "Shut it down?" Then after a brief pause, he said: "There's nothing to talk about. You have to talk to the President about that." So that was my request to Valerie Jarrett when she visited the tent the following day.

Time spent in the fasting tent was an unpredictable adventure. Some days were quieter, with hours of time to talk, or to just sit and contemplate. Other days, it was back-to-back visits by special guests, many of them unannounced. In the tent, lofty titles melted away and it became real people sharing real stories. I witnessed first-hand how the personal sacrifice of the D.C. fasters, joined by more than 10,000 solidarity fasters nationwide, moved hearts and minds of policymakers, making it no longer a question of if, but when, comprehensive immigration reform will pass. We were told that many members of Congress had tears in their eyes upon leaving the fasting tent.

My original plan was to stay until Saturday night, but the first day was so extraordinary, I decided to stay on for another. Despite having rarely stepped inside a church since childhood, I was curious (as an admirer of St. Francis of Assisi) about the English -- and Spanish -- speaking Franciscan church services planned for Sunday. It was deeply humbling to be treated as guests of honor the way we were, and I was moved by the church's overt emphasis on social justice. The showering of prayers and blessings from the friars and members of the congregation diminished my hunger pangs (days two and three of the fast were the most difficult) and gave me the strength of spirit to push on to day three, and then four.

Our only real exercise was the 150-yard round trip to the portalets, which we made often due to all the water we were drinking. We spent our nights sleeping on thin, squeaky bunks in a church basement, two short blocks from where I had just been staying with a friend. I could almost see her house from the church, yet was experiencing something worlds apart, which felt surreal. Drinking so much water also made it impossible to get a good night's sleep, so mornings were tough. On day four, I felt light and energized. On day five, tired and sluggish. On day six, light again. On day seven, tired again. This is how it went, a predictable roller-coaster ride, until day nine, when my body told me: "Enough." For me, the signs were unquenchable thirst and acute abdominal pain, and I have learned as an athlete to listen closely when my body speaks. In nine short days, I had shed 11 pounds, and gone from being in the best shape of my life, to feeling the weakest.

But I had energy for one more inspiring church service (this one in Spanish), where President Obama's Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, joined us in the front pew. Afterwards, four of us met with him privately, and I took the opportunity to request a meeting with the President to discuss shutting down Keystone XL's southern leg (I trust Mr. McDonough will honor his pledge to get back to me). Most important, though, was making it to the closing circle with my fellow fasters, and the "passing of the fast" ceremony that night, which gave me a chance to express my gratitude to everyone, including all the wonderful volunteers and support staff, for nine of some of the most powerful days of my life.

You may be wondering, why fast? Fasting is a time-honored practice for catalyzing social change. A deeply spiritual practice, it is way to open hardened hearts through personal sacrifice. Clarity of heart, mind and purpose arise when the cravings of the body are subdued. For nine days, I was living a day at a time, sometimes an hour at a time. Not knowing when my fast would end provided me with a tremendous sense of freedom.

One's hunger for justice becomes stronger than one's hunger for food when you realize that every day, another member of our human family dies in the desert, trying to cross to America -- like so many of our ancestors -- in search of a better life. One pushes on without food for another day when you hear the heart-wrenching story of a father being seized while taking his daughter to school, traumatizing an innocent child. Given all the families being shattered, and lives being lost by our broken immigration system, going nine days without food felt like a very small sacrifice for me to be making.

The Senate has already passed immigration reform and the House has the votes to do the same, but Speaker Boehner refuses to allow a vote. He could end much of this needless suffering tomorrow by bucking the extremists in his party and allowing a vote to come to the floor. His refusal to meet with the fasters notwithstanding, the fact that he hired a prominent veteran of immigration fights, who is a strong supporter of reform -- while the fast was happening -- is telling.

For his part, President Obama does not need Congress to act to dramatically curtail deportations. I wasn't there when the President visited the tent to thank fasters for our collective "sacrifice and determination," but the irony is not lost on me how the Obama administration deports from our soil more than a thousand immigrants a day, many of them hard-working service workers, while it welcomes, with open arms onto our soil, a toxic tar sands pipeline, owned by a foreign corporation that serves only the wealthy elite. We will know by year's end if the President is as willing to meet with the brave Texas landowners battling Keystone XL as he was to meet with the brave fasters.

It is a testament to the bold vision and leadership of Eliseo Medina, a successor to Cesar Chavez, that for 31 days, a little white tent on the National Mall became sacred ground in the shadow of a Capitol dome that's inner workings are too often profane.

May we never forget that we are all family, meaning an injustice against one of us is an injustice against all of us. I urge my brothers and sisters in the climate justice movement to join the struggle for immigration reform because the time is always right to stand up for families and human dignity. I urge my brothers and sisters in the immigration justice movement to join the struggle against planetary assaults like Keystone XL because the time is always right to stand up for the next seven generations and our non-human relations.

In closing, I invite you to watch this straight-from-the-heart video announcing a new social movement, one that transcends the environmental movement: Birthing the Pro Earth Movement While Reflecting on Life's Seasons. Everyone who supports clean water to drink, fresh air to breathe, healthy food to eat and a climate that supports life is invited to join the Pro Earth movement. As in the fasting tent, there is a place for everyone here. There are no dues to pay. There is no organization to join. You join in your own heart.