Fasting on Thanksgiving for Immigration Reform

FAN at Fast4Families

This year, Franciscan Earth Corps Program Director Rhett Engelking, OFS won’t be going home to Wisconsin for Thanksgiving. Here he explains why:

The Gospel tells us that when the Son of Man comes in glory to judge all nations, he will know the righteous by this criteria:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in.” Mt. 25:8

They were not baptized Christians at the time, yet when the Pawtuxet of the Wampanoag tribal confederation of American Indians invited a group of exiled strangers to their autumn harvest banquet they clearly met the criteria set forth by the Son of Man. The spirit of these accommodations, which occurred almost four hundred years ago in Plymouth, MA is precisely what we celebrate every year when we set aside time in November to give thanks.

On the first Thanksgiving, our ancestors were neither invited nor expected and yet we still have cause to celebrate the open armed Native Americans that encouraged the forming of bonds around the autumn harvest table. Whether on plastic foldout tables in suburban homes, on bench tables in urban soup kitchens, or on mahogany banquet tables in stately dinners, the American Thanksgiving table symbolizes the erasure of separateness and the reaffirming of our deepest family values. I love this holiday meal. I love the stuffing, sweet potato casseroles, and the leftover turkey sandwiches.  I love every opportunity for deeper connectedness that it offers, from board games to impromptu political debates.  This year, however, I have chosen not to return to Wisconsin for my Thanksgiving meal and opted instead to fast and pray on our national mall. I want to affirm my solidarity with a larger family. This is a family which includes 11 million undocumented immigrants. They have been exiled by a broken U.S. immigration system.

The Fast for Families began on November 12, the eve of the feast day of St. Francis Xavier Cabrini. Mother Cabrini was the first U.S. citizen ever canonized. She established a religious order, schools, hospitals and orphanages and the patroness of immigrants. It was through service projects launched from the southeastern Wisconsin parish that bears her name that I first recognized my calling as a Franciscan. Like me, she was a professed Secular Franciscan, but unlike me, she was not fortunate enough to be born on American soil. During her time there was already considerable xenophobic sentiment towards the many cultures of Catholic immigrants, and yet they still had a clear pathway to citizenship. Today, things are different.

For as long as I have been alive, the fight against the pathway to citizenship for our immigrant brothers and sisters has been led by the voices of people from my home Congressional district in Wisconsin. When I contemplated what it means for me to return to Wisconsin for the same family meal that has been denied to 11 million aspiring Americans, I realized what returning home this year has come to mean for me: acquiescence.

Right now families and communities are suffering the impact of deportations, deaths on the border, exploitation as workers, and the fear that accompanies a life spent in the shadows. Tomorrow, due to the prevailing policies, there will be noticeable absences at Thanksgiving tables. Every day over a thousand immigrants are detained, and whole communities have been left with no clear path to self-determination. This despite last November’s record turnout of voters advocating for just and immigration reform.

Currently, there is, in the House of Representatives, a bi-partisan comprehensive immigration reform bill, H.R. 15, which has 191 bi-partisan sponsors and needs 218 to pass. This bill could accompany the comprehensive, bipartisan immigration bill (S. 744) passed by the Senate in June and both provide just such a pathway. The House Speaker has refused to call the bill to a vote and has refused to dialogue with faith leaders who have called him to task on just this intransigence. And so I join the faith leaders from the Fast for Families in a water only fast and I pray that God will change the Speaker’s heart over this holiday weekend and allow the democratic process to be fulfilled.

When the prophet Isaiah spoke about what is an acceptable fast (Isaiah 58:6-12), he describes “sharing bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house and not turning your back on your own flesh.” As a Franciscan, this statement alone speaks to the heart of what it means to call myself a Christian man and a member of the body of Christ. After all, should our experience of the Body of Christ be something other than a sharing in the same flesh? Is Christ not the rock upon which we built our church?

As a child, I had the opportunity to visit Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. I imagined what it must have been like for the Pawtuxet to encounter a strange group of English immigrants for the first time and the unlikely compassion they showed in welcoming the pilgrims to a table of sister-brotherhood. America has ceased to be a home for all of the homeless. Behind the “accusing fingers and the malicious speech,” I believe we have lost something fundamental with regard our identity as Americans and especially as Christians. We have forgotten how heavy the yoke of the stranger is because we do not remember what it means to be searching for home. This Thanksgiving I am embarking on a voluntary exile with the hope of just this remembrance.

I fast because I believe that the individuals seated in that tent are what Isaiah called “repairers of the breach” who they hunger and thirst for righteousness. I dedicate my fast to Middle Americans who are unable to identify with the search for a home. It is essential that we reclaim the spirit of Thanksgiving, which is nothing if not a beautiful prayer of thanks for all those who have found a place for us in their lives (whether we deserved it or not). I encourage those who have the strength to find a way to join us in our efforts. The Advent season begins on Sunday and members of the Franciscan family around the world will join us in a fast on December 3, just as we are beginning a new liturgical year. Let us ring in the New Year by not turning our back on our own flesh, let us bring the afflicted and the homeless into our house, and let us re-imagine a Thanksgiving that challenges us to new levels of sharing our daily bread.

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Published in: on November 26, 2013 at 4:04 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. Reblogged this on FSJPIC.


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