Why I'm Fasting This Week for Immigration Reform

Today I'm restarting my a fast in solidarity with Fast for Families: A Call for Immigration and Citizenship.

Last Tuesday I finished two days of water-only fasting in the Fast for Families tent on the National Mall. I was compelled to fast in solidarity with the five core fasters who began November 12 and to join them in person. 

I began fasting after worship and lunch on Sunday in Solana Beach and caught a red-eye to DC that evening. I arrived at the tent Monday morning with just my backpack with a change of clothes. We began the morning with an orientation: putting on the brown ACT FAST hoodie, introducing of core fasters of Rudy, Eliseo, DJ, Lisa and Christian and telling stories why we all were fasting.

The tent is set up as a memorial shrine to those who daily die crossing the desert (1-2) or are deported (1100). There are pictures of immigrants posted on the wall, and a shoe found in the desert from an immigrant who didn’t survive the trek to America. At the entrance to the tent is posted the number of days the fast has lasted and of those who have died since November 12. It is also a sanctuary for evening celebration through scripture, prayer, stories and song.  For those who are fasting it is also home for as long as they feel called to sacrifice on behalf of immigration reform. 160 others have spent at least a day in the tent fasting and praying for immigration reform. 

The stories are as different as the people who fast. They themselves or their family members came we undocumented, or struggled through the tedious and long process of citizenship, or a family member died crossing the border, or they worked with an organization supporting immigration reform. 

I shared my story again: I’m the pastor of a church in North County San Diego and for three decades we have partnered with our Hispanic neighbors for worship and serving, tutoring, literacy and just this year created an immigration and citizenship center. I started as an accidental advocate, never thinking I’d be talking about immigration reform. But, after a yearlong bilingual focus group experience with research, stories and scripture, they encouraged me and the leadership of our church to widen the dialogue--away from partisan rhetoric and focused on our calling from scripture and relationships. How do we welcome the stranger?  

I said yes to a series of opportunities, never expecting there would be an invitation to the White House to visit with the president. I went to the Oval Office November 13 to tell our story on November 13, which also Day 2 of Fast for Families in tents on the National Mall. The previous day Jim Wallis commissioned the fasters with prayer. After the meeting with the president I visited the fasters, shared our stories, received a handmade stick cross and lanyard and prayed for them.

I began to reflect on my own story and why immigration is close to my own heart. 

Not only was I the pastor of a church, but I had also invested most of my adult life in relationship with the Hispanic culture. I grew up in a church with a Spanish speaking service, made up of Latin American and Cuban Refugee families. I studied Spanish all through junior high and high school. I majored in Spanish and read Chicano literature in college. At the same time I went on my first mission trip across the border to the dumps of Tijuana with church members who visited on a regular basis with food and clothing. 

In our 30s, my wife and I began to lead house building trips with Amor Ministries to Mexico from northern California. In ten years we built over 100 homes with upper-middle class teenagers. Each spring trip year the experience grew in meaning and popularity, winning out over family vacations and college hunting trips. It was where students made faith decisions, adults connected with kids, and where my heart deepened for the plight of hardworking families who were thrilled with a 200 square foot house built by high schoolers. I met the families, heard their stories, shared their tears and played with their children. We were all changed. 

Eleven years ago I was called to Solana Beach Presbyterian Church, which had already begun a Hispanic fellowship a decade or so earlier. They were not a nested congregation, but integrated into the membership of mostly middle to upper middle class English speakers.  In the 80s our church reached out to undocumented workers living in the canyons with sandwiches and help with amnesty, which had passed under the Reagan administration. 

With a transition in leadership a few years ago we took the opportunity to re-evaluate our commitment to our Hispanic neighbors, who lived closer to the church campus than 90% of the members. With the calling of a new Hispanic pastor we said yes, but this was a new yes to our neighbors. We wanted to work on integrating our ministries, building for a future with English speaking children who had been tutored, graduated college and returned home with their families. 

That has resulted in more of a partnership than we had previously experienced. There was an empowered Hispanic leadership team, occasional bilingual worship services, and a renewed commitment to tutoring, literacy, and eventually, citizenship classes and a citizenship center. We began building houses again with Amor Ministries, this time with children, students and adults from both worshipping communities. Spanish speakers helped with translation, building, and a children’s program with crafts, a bible lesson and snacks. Our Hispanic members began a flower ministry to support their ministry and invest in missionaries and mission trip scholarships. Elders chosen from the Hispanic fellowship were to our counsel. We began thinking more as “we” than “they.” 
Then came the issue of immigration. 

In 2006, when immigration reform was back in the news, a gathering of current and inactive elders met for a seminar on immigration. We heard from experts about the history of immigration and the impact on our society. 

In 2012 the Immigration Focus Group met to hear stories of our own families impacted by immigration. They read Welcoming the Stranger and visited with experts in immigration history, law and economics. They concluded this was an issue that was not simply political, but also deeply personal and biblical.

They discovered the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT), founded by a broad group of pastors, denominational leaders and theologians who were not interested in any particular legislation, but supported six principles rooted in scripture: Honor the dignity of every human being, secure our borders, create a pathway for earned citizenship, fairness to taxpayers, respect the rule of law and keeping families together. 

We invited Rich Mouw, a theologian and ethicist and outgoing president of Fuller Theological Seminary, to preach on immigration. Psalm 146 speaks of the four classes of vulnerable in ancient Israel: the poor, the widow, the orphan and the foreigner in your midst. In their patriarchal society they didn’t have a male to speak on their behalf. But God hears their voice and God also asks his people to care for them as well. 92 times in the old testament the word ger is used for stranger, foreigner or alien resident. 

The command is to love, welcome, provide for the foreigner because you were once foreigners in a foreign land.  And sure enough, virtually every early character in the Old Testament is a foreigner and even Moses names is son Gershom, which means foreigner in a foreign land

That evening I moderated a discussion with Dr. Mouw and  introduced the discussion by telling our story as a church and why we were involved in the issue of Immigration reform. Wendy Tarr from CLUE Orange County attended the roundtable, and during the Q and A enthusiastically told the gathering about her organization and affirmed what our church was doing to support the cause. 

I realized we had invested, we had made commitments, our yes was making a difference and our story was developing. 

In July, Wendy invited me to a Pray4Reform day of Prayer and Action in DC in July, We gathered for worship then went to the Hill to talk with strategic southern California republican house members. Each time I had he chance to tell our story.  Our story emerged in the hallway of the congressional offices. Our group of five consisted of Wendy, Glen Peterson from World Relief, and Fernando Tamara and David Jaimes, who are cousins, immigrants and pastors from Peru. 

When we approached Darrell Issa’s office, we met a group of speakers and pastors from our worship gathering led by Jim Wallis, who told us we were introducing ourselves. I took my turn, simply giving my name and what church I was from. Wendy discovered we weren’t introducing ourselves to each other, but to Issa’s staffer and that this was our meeting, she whispered to me: “you are the only one from his district, you need to bring the conversation back to you and tell her why I was there.” 

Quickly I created a bullet point list of why I had come: Pastor with a hispanic fellowship, Hispanic neighbors, the focus group, tutoring, children distressed over parent’s deportation, and Pedro, a masters student who couldn’t graduate until he got is DACA (Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals), which he did and then began his masters in divinity to become a US Army Chaplain. I’m compelled to be their voice.

The staff person told us the congressman’s hopes for immigration reform, and the desire to see something be lasting. The meeting ended and Jim Wallis told me he appreciated my story. It was now my story, our story. We went on to four other offices, refining the story, hearing others in our group share their stories, hopes and dreams for immigration reform. 

A few weeks later EIT asked me to record a one minute radio ad that aired in San Diego. To kick off the radio campaign I participated in a national press call with 25 Washington reporters. We each prepared a two minute story, submitted a quote for the press release and answered questions. Within two hours we were quoted in 75 online publications from the New York Times to Huffington Post. 

During the August recess I hosted a visit to Darrell Issa’s District Office in Vista. At the pre-meeting with 18 mostly Presbyterian and Catholic pastors, we discussed our strategy. We discovered the office would only be for six of us, so we all went, first the six and then asked if the other 12 could join us, even if they had to stand. I introduced us as a group of concerned clergy who wanted to help the congressman get a yes on comprehensive immigration reform. Then many of us told our stories of the challenge immigration system poses for families in our communities and the staffers told us the hopes and desires of the congressman. We ended holding hands around the conference table and praying together. 

It didn’t feel like I was being political as much as contributing to the democratic process as a citizen and faith leader toward the common good.

In October we invited Matthew Soerens, author of Welcoming the Stranger, to speak to pastors at lunch then a broader audience in the evening. He spoke about the biblical, legal and economical aspects of immigration; the bible has  a lot to say about welcoming the stranger, the law was not consistent or just (there actually is no line for most illegal immigrants to stand in) and 95% of Wall Street economists believe immigration reform would be good for our economy. 

That next day, my op-ed article ran in the San Diego Union-Tribune. Writing out my story and having it published exposed me, our church and certainly undocumented people in our community.  It was another yes along the way that was forming our story. 

It was the night of November 10 that I received an invitation from Julie Rodriguez from the White House inviting me to meet with the president, which I wrote about in my previous blog.

On November 13, I met in the Oval Office, and afterwards, met with the fasters. It was the second day of their fast, just a handful of them intent on fasting until Speaker Boehner brought an immigration bill to the floor of the House. I wrote about that visit in my blog, "The Power of Telling Our Stories."

Since that day, I have been blogging and sharing the story in a new op-ed in the Union Tribune, local news and newspaper reports, and worship

Last week I received a text asking if I’d back to Washington to meet with the fasters again. As I processed the question, and my ability to say yes again and again, I realized this is my calling right now. Yes is sort of a no brainer. I will ride this wave as long as I’m asked, and I’ll say no to other things that would allow me to say yes. I didn’t ask for this, but I’ve been called. 

I realized I have gone from an accidental advocate to a willing advocate. 

After our orientation we settled into a quiet day of resting and sharing stories. In the afternoon I went with a delegation of Black-Latino pastors from New York to deliver a letter from the core fasters to Speaker John Boehner. 

We met families from Arizona standing outside Speaker Boehner’s office quietly praying and singing. They parted as we walked down the hallway, shaking our hands and smiling—we were extra help in their cause. We knocked on the speaker’s door, but no one answered. (Ironically, there is a plaque outside the door that says, “Welcome, come in.”) We knocked harder. This was his representative office, not his speaker office, so perhaps no one was there. But no one answered. 

I slipped the letter under the door and we joined hands with the others and prayed. We prayed for softened hearts, for principalities and powers to be destroyed, for wisdom, and for God to do what is impossible for man. 

I enjoyed the brisk, cool walk with the other pastors, wondering what it might take for Congress to vote before the Christmas recess. Coming from different backgrounds and cultures, we laughed that I would be ignored as a white evangelical pastor. “They can ignore us, but they have to listen to you!”

In the evening we had our first celebration gathering. Every night since they have begun the fast, new fasters and those ending their fast share. There is prayer at the beginning and end, along with a meditation from a visiting pastor. 

We were shuttled to the hotel. I met Elena, Eliseo Medina’s daughter. She wasn’t fasting, but helping with logistics for the fast and serving as hostess for all of us. I shared Ana’s story, which I captured on my iPhone after church on Sunday. 

Ana’s father came illegally to California’s Central Valley to find work as a teenager. His father had been a farm worker in the Brazero program which invited workers to come to our country to work our fields. Ana grew up in the central Valley, the oldest of five children. She would get up in the middle of the night to feed visitors; their home was a “port of entry” for many illegals. After high school she was the first one to graduate with college.  She is married, has two children, works for the Navy in strategic planning, and volunteers in our literacy and citizenship classes. 

“That’s my story, and she could be my sister!” Elena said. 

Tuesday morning we were shuttled back to the tent for the big event: passing on the fast from the core fasters to the new fasters. The media, clergy and members of congress were invited. I met Joel Hunter again, who flew in from Orlando. We met three weeks earlier on our visit to the White House. 

He and I served as escorts for Lisa Sharon Harper, who was completing her 22 days of fasting. Waiting in the core fasters tent for the event to begin, the other escorts and dignitaries joined us: Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr.; Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the labor movement who marched with Cesar Chavez and created the motto “Si, se puede;” Representative Joe Kennedy who agreed to fast for a day, then pass on the fast to another member of Congress.  

The event began with some opening speakers, a small choir, and then we escorted Lisa to the podium. She sat down and I took my place off the stage right. I stood behind seated Rep. Nancy Pelosi and congressional leaders, When it came time for Cardinal Carrick to pray, we were instructed to hold hands. I reached down to Nancy Pelosi’s shoulder and she took my hand, brought it to her cheek, and then held it as we prayed. 

Each of the core fasters broke their fast with break and juice, then gave their crosses to the person taking their places as new fasters. It was moving to watch the core fasters whisper words of encouragement, prayer or thanks, to each of the new fasters, who were all moved and overwhelmed by the moment. 

Everyone recognized the significance of Joe Kennedy receiving the cross from Eliseo Medina  and responded in sustained applause. Eliseo’s mentor Cesar Chavez broke his fast with Robert Kennedy in the 60s, and Chavez encouraged him to run for president. Joe is Bobby’s grandson. 

I helped Lisa to the car with the other core fasters. They went immediately to the hospital for care and debrief with a pastor. I hugged her and told her how proud I was of her, and to think we met three weeks earlier and discovered we had mutual friends. Strangers becoming friends through the humble act of fasting. Awesome.
The new fasters spoke passionately, most shared their faith in Jesus and their motivation for immigration reform. Hispanic, white, pastors, leaders, Asian—they all had their convictions for moving something through congress now. 

There was scripture, prayer and a call to action. Rev. Bernice King introduced herself as a daughter of Martin Luther King, but more importantly, the daughter of the King of Kings. “The time is now,” she preached. 

I met Stephan Bauman, president of World Relief, the organization training our staff for the North County Immigration and Citizenship Center, and Jenny Yang, co-author of Welcoming the Stranger (IVP). I met Ian Dandley, an organizer with PICO from Arizona, who brought the busload of immigrants to pray in the hallway outside Boehner's office. They all thanked me for my blog which they have quoted and reposted in the past few weeks to thousands of their followers. 

The power of social media was exponentially spreading our story.

While I was interviewed by a spanish news organization and NPR, Julie Rodriguez from the White came by to say hello. We hugged, then talked about the significance of this day. “I kept thinking during the prayer service of the conversations you had with the president in the Oval Office,” she said. “Who would have thought the humble act of prayer and fasting would get the sustained attention on immigration we all desired?” I added, incredulous of our three week journey. 

We spent the rest of the day in the tent sharing stories, meeting visitors, checking email. I had to leave the tent just after six on Tuesday evening for Union Station. Scott, the coordinator of the evening celebrations, asked me to stay for the first part of the meeting. 

After the opening prayers, Scott said, “We are saying goodbye to a good friend of ours--we just love this guy. We met him the second day of our fast, and the story of his church and his story set the tone for the rest of our fast. He came all the way from San Diego to fast with us this week.”

Scott shared those same sentiments with me privately throughout my two day visit, but this time he was sharing it with those who were fasting, about 40 families from Arizona, and visitors who come each night to celebrate. 

He handed me the microphone, and again I shared our story. When I finished there was sustained applause and Jim Wallis embraced me. “It was so important that you came. You’ve made a big difference.”

I left the tent again for the second time in three weeks, amazed how God used our story to inspire, encourage and empower. 

I'm fasting this week because I want to be in solidarity with those whose stories I have heard, yet whose pain I've never known. I believe immigration reform is necessary and I believe prayer and fasting can change things.

I believe we can make a difference.


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