|Presbyterians begin fasting initiative, seeking God’s leading in food crisis|
|Written by Leslie Scanlon|
|Sunday, 12 October 2008 19:33|
Phyllis Zoon has never fasted before, but she’s trying it.
And, as the hunger action enabler for Monmouth Presbytery in New Jersey, Zoon is connecting the dots between her life in an affluent country and the needs of hungry people around the world.
Zoon joined a new initiative of the Hunger Program of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to encourage people to fast for 40 hours on the first weekend of each month for the next year – that started Oct. 3-5, the weekend of World Communion Sunday — as a way of focusing attention on the global food crisis. “Let us fast, pray, repent and act,” the Hunger Program’s Web site states.
Three Presbyterian leaders — Bruce Reyes-Chow, moderator of the 218th General Assembly; Linda Valentine, executive director of the General Assembly Council; and Gradye Parsons, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk – invited Presbyterians to join them in the fast, “because we are called by Christ to respond to the cry of the poor.”
The idea is that the fast each month would start on a Friday evening and continue through Sunday morning, ending with Communion at worship or a communal meal – although individuals or groups may alter that format to suit their own circumstances.
Each month would provide a focus on the needs and economic realities of a particular country — starting with Cameroon in October; Haiti on the weekend of Oct. 31-Nov. 2; the United States on Dec. 5-7; the Democratic Republic of the Congo on Jan. 2-4; and continuing on. The Hunger Program will make available information about the food crisis internationally and in particular countries; about the spiritual discipline of fasting; and will provide worship and liturgical resources for congregations that choose to participate.
The Hunger Program has created a new Facebook group, “Presbyterians Respond to Global Food Crisis,” where people can share their own ideas. And some are encouraging people to donate the money they would have spent on food if they weren’t fasting to combat world hunger.
“I am hoping to participate in the fast because I believe it is essential I do something more than just talk the talk,” wrote Leslie Rafaneillo, a member of First Church of Tuckerton, N.J., in an e-mail interview prior to the first fasting weekend. Rafaneillo, who’s been active in peace and justice issues for decades, volunteers in a soup kitchen in Atlantic City and at a local food pantry.
“I’ve become more and more concerned and worried as I see, right here in my neighborhood, the dire needs of so many people — ordinary people like you and me who are struggling to pay rent and buy food,” Rafaneillo wrote. “It is frightening to realize how many of us are just one paycheck away from homelessness.”
While many Presbyterians may have little experience with it, or may associate it primarily with the Roman Catholic Church, “fasting is a very old spiritual practice,” said David Gambrell, an associate for worship in the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship. “In the Hebrew Scriptures, it’s a sign of repentance, it’s a way of turning to God and seeking God’s will, expressing your embodying grief and preparation to receive God’s word.”
In the New Testament, Jesus fasted in the wilderness, preparing for ministry. The early church fasted as a way to discern God’s will in selecting and ordaining leaders.
The Book of Deuteronomy says “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength,” Gambrell said. “That’s all supposed to happen together. Fasting is a form of embodied prayer, a way of praying with our whole bodies.”
Nancy Lister-Settle, a commissioner to last summer’s General Assembly from the Presbytery of Des Moines, was co-sponsor of a commissioners’ resolution calling on Presbyterians to donate money to a fund to assist the PC(USA)’s international partners in responding to the global food crisis, and inviting Presbyterians to participate in monthly fasts in support of the poor and hungry around the world.
Lister-Settle, the hunger action enabler for her presbytery, understands that many people have trouble understanding what the term “global food crisis” actually means — in comprehending the complicated intersections between a globalized economy and the world food supply. The PC(USA) is offering some resources for people wanting to learn more, such as a resource called “Global Food Crisis 101,” which is available for download.
But she has also seen these issues at play in her own community, in the ongoing discussions that local religious leaders are having in Iowa, for example, with people working in agriculture regarding farm legislation in Congress.
“It’s just so complicated,” Lister-Settle said. “The decisions that are made on my neighbor’s farm here in Iowa really do ripple out all over the world. It was becoming clear to me that we people of faith needed to have a bit more understanding, a lot more understanding, and a lot more solidarity with the hungry people. We oftentimes feel sorry for them, but don’t really know how to translate that into a closer, relational kind of response.”
She has also seen, through her presbytery’s long-standing partnerships with Christians in El Salvador and Egypt, the direct impact of the world food crisis on people in those countries.
In El Salvador, the cost of corn, a staple in the local diet, is skyrocketing, because the corn can be used to make ethanol for fuel, Lister-Settle said.
Even in Iowa, where much of the corn grown is for livestock feed, the cost of corn is getting more expensive. “Land that was going into food production now is going into fuel production,” Lister-Settle said. “And the cost of the grain, because the supplies are down, is higher, which is great for the (corn) farmers. My friends here in Iowa are delighted with the shape of things.”
But when she visited Egypt last January, on her way to dinner at a friend’s home, she passed a huge line of people standing in line to buy bread. Her friends explained that “the price of wheat had gone up, and the bakers who weren’t subsidized by the government couldn’t afford to stay in business. So the number of outlets for bread had diminished. People would make lines at the subsidized bakeries where the bread was cheaper, because they couldn’t afford anything else. I’ve seen things personally that told me there was a big shift going on …
“As the markets are more and more globalized, and our farmers are trying to find foreign markets for their goods and wanting good prices, it kind of undermines the local production in developing countries. They suddenly find themselves unable to feed their people. It makes for political instability … ”
Drawing close to God
For some, the idea of fasting in response to a subject so complicated is a way of drawing closer to the presence of God.
The global food crisis “is overwhelming for people, it certainly is for me,” Gambrell said. With such interconnected economic and environmental forces at work, “it’s hard for me to understand. It’s easy for me to understand Jesus’ practice of feeding the hungry and the prophets’ concern for the poor. So it’s clear to me that we have a responsibility to respond to this, even if I don’t understand all of the problem.”
For some, the discipline of fasting can be a means of expressing repentance and drawing closer to God.
“Not everyone can fast, of course,” Gambrell said. Some have medical reasons why they can’t abstain entirely from food, and “it’s important to realize there are a variety of ways to do this. One can just radically simplify one’s way of life and eating practices, and that’s a good way to engage in this discipline as well.”
Among Presbyterians “there’s still this misconception that fasting is something that Roman Catholics do, and it’s not part of our Reformed tradition,” he said. “But in fact, it’s a very biblical practice, and it’s one that’s lifted up by reformers like John Calvin as a way of responding to crisis, as a way of disciplining ourselves in prayer and a way of seeking the will of God.”
Arlene Lockett, an elder at Fremont Church in Sacramento, Calif., is trying to organize a prayer and fasting retreat for women in her congregation, in part because a similar retreat she went on last spring in Hawaii proved to be very meaningful.
“As we think of people without food, one of the basics of human existence, we can appeal to God to change whatever situation we’re focusing on and to help me to know what I can do to make a difference,” Lockett said in an interview. “I see it all as a spiritual thing. I think of God as our true answer to any problem that we have, in a personal way or a community way or a global way. Worshipping and entreating and confessing and working through ‘What’s my part and how do I deal with the pain of just knowing these things are true around the world’ I think is just another way of asking God, ‘What do you want me to do?’”
Lockett fasted in Hawaii for 48 hours, much of that time spent in prayer and worship and sharing with others.
“It went by so fast,” she said. “The fasting itself was not a burden at all. I kind of expected it would be, but it wasn’t. … It was really wonderful.”