The first time I ever fasted, I was a freshman at Earlham College. I was taking a course called Intro to Philosophy: Food Ethics, a course that changed my life in many good ways. My study group – a bunch of hippies interested in sustainable agriculture way before being interested in sustainable agriculture was trendy --- decided to try a one-day fast in solidarity with hungry people around the world. We didn’t really have any idea what we were doing – we had no sense of fasting as a spiritual discipline or even as political action. We were just earnest and angry, all at the same time, and thought somehow that fasting for a day made sense. I think we imagined, naively, that fasting would give us some feel for what it is like to be hungry. We fasted for one full day -- breakfast, lunch and dinner -- all the way to breakfast the next morning. By then we were utterly clear that we had no idea whatsoever what it is like to be hungry. We had spent almost the entire day obsessed with food and talking about how good breakfast was going to taste. We were earnest, but we weren’t dumb: it wasn’t even lunchtime of our fast day before we realized that people who are truly hungry don’t get to break their fast at the college cafeteria after just a day. We even thought about giving the fast up, but the only thing that seemed more absurd and privileged than thinking we would know something of hunger after a day of fasting was giving up the fast before even a day had passed. So we kept our fast, absurd as it was. But for many years, I spurned all thought of fasting as silly and naïve.
After my conversion to Christianity, I became interested in fasting as a spiritual discipline, rather than as an act of solidarity. One year during Lent, I made a discipline of fasting one day a week, but usually only from dinner to dinner, skipping just breakfast and lunch. For much of my fasting during that Lent, I probably couldn’t have articulated very clearly why I was fasting, or what it meant to me; certainly now, years later, I am even less able. But I recall that then, as now, prayer was difficult for me; I often felt empty and shallow when I tried to pray with any discipline. Yet I imagined somehow that my fasting was a sort of prayer, and that was comforting. That hungry feeling that made me yearn to be filled, that heightening of my senses, that in-the-moment awareness my hunger gave me – I imagined that true prayer might be something like that. It was a good fast that Lent, even if I didn’t completely understand why.
I’ve been thinking today a lot about Jean Montrevil, a man I don’t even know, a man I had never even heard of before a couple of days ago. I am moved deeply by his plight, and by his hunger strike. But I know his is the plight of so many families who have been torn apart by draconian immigration policies in this country. And I know that the movement to change such policies is just one cause among so many -- too many -- in the world crying out for action and justice. And yet I am feeling called to fast in solidarity with Jean Montrevil. Not a hunger strike, of course, but perhaps one meal a day until he is free.
Before you even say it, I know: This is absurd. Impulsive. Trendy maybe. And unlike when I was earnest and eighteen years old, I have no thought that missing one meal a day would in any way change Jean Montrevil’s situation, or even help me to understand what it might feel like to be separated from my family and faced with deportation for no good reason at all. That is all beyond my imagination, and would be far from the point of a fast in solidarity with his hunger strike.
But I have come to believe that prayer makes a difference, even though, like my first spiritual fast during Lent, I can’t really explain how or why. Still, I feel called to pray … yet most often, painfully unable to do so. Perhaps fasting is the prayer I can offer now.
But why Jean Montrevil? Why fast with and for him, when there are so many other people, so many other causes? No good reason, I guess. Jean Montrevil happens to be the man I am thinking about now, and trying to pray for. He could very easily serve as a proxy for so many others who need and deserve our prayers, but who will forever remain nameless and faceless. I doubt he would mind.
So here is my prayer, for Jean, and for his family, and for all immigrants facing the threat or the reality of families torn apart: in solidarity with him and with them, I will fast one meal each day until Jean Montrevil is released from detention and reunited with his family.