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Faith, fasting and a foreign land 

Immigration activists use religious discipline in fight for reform

The column originally used an incorrect name. The young DREAMer mentioned in the first paragraph's name is Jessica Contreras.

It's a beautiful spring Saturday in March — the kind of beautiful that calls for firing up the barbecue grill — and a group of 11 Charlotte women is spending the day fasting at the Sacred Heart Convent, in Belmont. They are students and mothers, committed Christians and nonbelievers, undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens. They are fasting, along with hundreds of other women across the country, for immigration reform. "I'm doing this as a non-violent way to bring attention to the immigration issue," said Jessica Contreras, a young DREAMer participating in the fast. "Our focus is on stopping deportations and keeping families together."

An immigration reform bill passed the Senate last summer; it has been stalled in the House of Representatives ever since. Presently, immigration reform advocates have little hope for a comprehensive bill to make any headway in Congress and are focusing their efforts on pressuring President Obama to stop deportations via executive order. In June 2012, he signed a memo calling for deferred action to certain undocumented persons who came to the U.S. as children and have pursued education or military service here. Supporters of immigration reform are hoping for similar action from the president around deportations.

Across the country, immigration activists are partnering with communities of faith and using faith-based practices to bring attention to this issue. The national Fast for Families campaign is calling supporters to fast every Wednesday during lent as a way to re-commit themselves to the fight against this country's oppressive and broken immigration system. On its website, Fast for Families emphasizes the relationship between immigration and faith saying, "it is essential to have a moral/religious/spiritual component to the fasts. It allows us to turn our attention away from our own needs and focus on a deeper level with the suffering of others."

Just 9 percent of Protestant Christians and 7 percent of Catholics say that their views on immigration are primarily influenced by faith. This is partly because only 26 percent of clergy speak out about immigration from the pulpit. This is an issue the women participating in the fast have encountered in their own congregations. Many have said their pastors and priests barely mention immigration for fear of getting too political. Others stated that their religious leaders pray for reform but do little else to involve their congregations in the issue.

It's an interesting phenomenon that immigration is deemed too political by the same members of the clergy who believe that discussing issues like abortion and gay marriage is their moral responsibility. About 59 percent of clergy speak out about abortion and 44 percent about homosexuality. Why is immigration — a topic widely present in Judeo-Christian scriptures — barely mentioned by our religious leaders?

Francisca Cruz is an undocumented immigrant participating in the fast at Sacred Heart. She attends church regularly and prays daily for immigration reform. "As a person of faith, it is very painful to see the way immigrants are treated in this country," she said.

Not everyone fasting is as committed to their faith as Cruz and several of the women said they rarely attend church. However, all them agreed that they feel a moral obligation to fight for immigration reform. For Elizabeth Beaumont, the only non Latina in the group, participating in this kind of action has impacted her spirituality. "I've never been a churchy person," she said, "but seeing the strength that faith gives people has influenced my own beliefs."

Immigration activists have also been using faith to attempt to influence elected officials who have made their religious beliefs an important part of their campaigns. In November, a group of 40 Latino leaders from Charlotte and Gastonia held a sit-in at Congressman Patrick McHenry's office. McHenry is a devoted Catholic. The activists prayed the rosary and carried images of the Virgin of Guadalupe to appeal to his faith. "We were saying, you say you practice these beliefs, but you're not really practicing them when it comes to immigration reform," said Contreras, who also participated in that action. Sister Carmelita lives at the Sacred Heart Convent and was instrumental in coordinating the fast with the Latin American Coalition. She belongs to the Sisters of Mercy, a worldwide community of Roman Catholic women whose work is deeply rooted in promoting social justice.

"This is an immigrant country," said Carmelita, who is originally from Ireland. "Every sister of Mercy is involved in the immigration work. We are committed to getting laws passed on immigration and we push for these laws every opportunity they come up. When you read scripture we know Jesus always reached out, especially to those who needed help."

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