The 40-day Fast Action for immigration reform involving some 10,000 faith leaders across America has ended. Thank you to all who participated in the fast and prayed for reform. I’m excited to share the reflections of Pastor Michael Wilker, a participant in the fast and Senior Pastor at Church of the Reformation in Washington, D.C. LIRS Media Relations Specialist Clarissa Perkins conducted the interview over email.
Clarissa Perkins (CP): What personal experiences led you to become involved with immigrants and immigration?
Pastor Michael Wilker (MW): I grew up on a Minnesota farm in an area where we employed migrant laborers. As a young adult I lived in Washington, D.C., during the Salvadoran and Guatemalan civil wars when D.C. was a center for undocumented and documented refugees. They lead me to become a bilingual pastor – first in California, then in New York – to congregations with a mix of citizens and non-citizens as members.
At first, as a white male U.S. citizen, I got involved because I felt sorry for the poverty and political oppression many immigrants suffered. Then, I continued to be involved because I recognized and experienced the great gifts immigrants and refugees give to their families, the church and the United States. Now, I’m involved not just because of their suffering and gifts, but because I also see how the broken immigrant system has also caused spiritual harm to me, other white people and other U.S. citizens.
The current immigration structure makes it appear that we white people and other citizens are not complicit in the perpetuation of injustice. We’ve written the laws and policies so we can check the documents, keep our files and say we’ve complied with the law.
If I’ve hired an “illegal immigrant” it’s her fault for lying – not mine. Or, we keep refugees detained to protect us, we say, even though there is no evidence they have done anything wrong. Or, we justify the denial of DREAMERs’ education and job opportunities because we blame their parents for the predicament of our neighborhood children. We have used the law to self-justify ourselves – to keep us appearing self-righteous.
As a Lutheran Christian, when I see the law being used to keep me or another class “righteous” rather than using the law to order our common lives with justice and mercy, then I know there is a deeply important spiritual issue.
CP: You recently participated in the 40 day Fast Action for immigration reform, this is while preparing for your 10th marathon. Throughout the six-week fast, did anything surprise you?
MW: I’m an omnivore, but mostly vegetarian. So for the fast I decided to eat a vegan diet and refrain from all animal products. Since I am also training for the Richmond Marathon (November 16) and was beginning to log 15-20 mile runs, I was constantly thinking about my diet. And every time I thought about my food, and every time I ran, I prayed about immigration and our government.
I started the fast with a great deal of grief and despair. As the fast began, the House of Representatives was already ramping up for the government shut-down and it appeared there would be no energy left this fall to address immigration reform.
On the first week of the fast, I was supposed to run seven miles of hills. The best hill to run near my house is Capitol Hill. So I ran seven times around the Capitol praying that the walls of injustice would come a tumbling down like the walls of Jericho fell.
Another week, during my early morning run down the National Mall I was caught in a huge swarm of gnats. It was gross! They stuck to my sweaty skin, got in my eyes, nose and throat — for a while I was not vegan! It started me thinking about the Exodus story though, and the plagues that visited Egypt before God liberated the Hebrew slaves. As I ran back up Capitol Hill, as I got to the eastern side, the light from the sunrise suddenly lit the Capitol dome in deep red. It was awesome; I’ve never seen anything like it. It was like a sign.
The end of the 40 days of fasting, praying and running nearly coincided with the end of the government shutdown. I walked over to the House of Representatives the night they voted to open the government and raise the debt ceiling. As I was leaving the building, I saw Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL) interviewed live on CNN. At the end interview, he talked about how Republicans and Democrats can work together to advance the ball on deficit reduction, immigration reform and infrastructure investment. After his interview, I introduced myself and said I hope he follows through with the commitment to immigration reform. I said: I and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service wants compassionate reform that provides a pathway to citizenship, maintains family unity and reduces detentions. He said he does support a pathway to citizenship.
I ended the 40-day fast with much more hope than I entered the fast. Thanks be to God.
CP: During the fast, there was a different prayer and focus each week. Was there one focus in particular that stuck with you?
MW: I didn’t follow those prayers.
CP: You offered your church for participants to break the fast. I heard that you also personally cooked the meal. What did you make, and what did it feel like to break the fast with a group committed to immigration reform?
MW: I made a vegan, gluten-free baked bean and cornbread casserole and baked ziti with sausage. Salad, fruit, apple juice and lemonade were also served. I enjoyed breaking the fast in community – and I also appreciated the opportunity to serve the workers at LIRS and our partner organizations. I greatly appreciate their work.
CP: President Obama has indicated that he isn’t giving up on immigration reform. Have any congressmen or women recognized the fast or been particularly ardent about reform?
MW: In addition to Rep. Schock (R-IL), I also have spoken with Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) who also supports immigration reform. I pray Republicans and Democrats like these two very thoughtful and respectful representatives come together to strengthen our nation, advance justice and extend mercy for the good of us all.