Ramadan is in full swing, and even though I am not Muslim and do not observe this holy month as part of my faith tradition, I have a deep respect for my Muslim friends and neighbors and the intense spirituality that accompanies this time. A Muslim friend of mine recently told me that she feels closer to God during these few weeks of fasting than any other time of the year.
While fasting during Ramadan is certainly a unique and deeply rooted practice in Islam, fasting as a spiritual practice has been part of many faith communities for centuries. In her book, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun describes fasting as “letting go of an appetite in order to seek God on matters of deep concern for other, the self, and the world” (218).
Fasting is a way of being in solidarity with brothers and sisters around the world who are suffering and in need of compassion and grace. By voluntarily choosing to forgo meals, we recognize our privilege and acknowledge that in many homes, cities, and countries around the world people are hungry by circumstance and not by choice. We lament our unconscious and unknowing contributions to that suffering and poverty. We choose to take off our own shoes and try to slip our feet into the sandals of another, for a day, for a week, for a month.
On April 14, 2014, over 200 Nigerian teenage girls were abducted by an extremist group called Boko Haram. The girls were between the ages of 16 and 20 and were kidnapped from their school in Chibok, in Borno State in northeastern Nigeria. While most of the world knows that these girls included Christians and Muslims, what many do not know is that most of the Christian schoolgirls and their families are part of Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (or EYN, the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria). While EYN began as an outreach and mission of the Church of the Brethren in the United States, today the relationship between the EYN and the U.S. Brethren is more akin to siblings than a parent-child.
The Church of the Brethren is the church in which I have been a lifelong member and in which I am a licensed minister. A few weeks ago we concluded our 2014 Annual Conference, and much of our worship, business, informal conversations, and prayer were drawn to the situation in Nigeria and our Nigerian brothers and sisters. The people of this country are not strangers to violence motivated by religious difference, but these recent events in Chibok have struck a chord that is in many ways deeper and more painful than before. At Annual Conference, I was fortunate enough to have had a chance encounter with Dr. Rebecca Dali, the wife of Samuel Dali, who is the president of EYN. Dr. Dali was one of our international guests and in light of all of the violence and pain that she carries with her every day, I was struck by her courage and strength. She shared about her research at the University of Jos regarding the impact of violence on the women of Nigeria, and about the work of her nonprofit organization, the Center for Caring, Empowerment, and Peace Initiatives (CCEPI), which aids widows, orphans, and refugees affected by the violence in Nigeria. Her words were heavy but yet she spoke of the hope she feels knowing that the Brethren in the United States are weeping with her. She spoke of her faith that God lives and moves among and within the suffering, and that peace and justice must and will prevail.
What can we, as people of faith, do in response and in solidarity with this community groaning in pain, thousands of miles away? I suggest that the Church of the Brethren and the month of Ramadan (two entities which one might never connect together otherwise) might help us find one response. At Annual Conference, the delegate body overwhelmingly approved a resolution of solidarity with the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, entitled “A Resolute Fast and Fervent Prayer: A Resolution Responding to Violence in Nigeria.” The resolution draws on the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church: “Christ is just like the human body–a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body…. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it. You are the body of Christ and parts of each other” (1 Corinthians 12:12a, 26-27, CEB).
It continues by naming the determination of the church, to “resolve to walk with our sisters and brothers in Christ by entering a season of fasting and prayer. We commit ourselves to the practices of lament, prayer, fasting, and bearing witness.” I am struck by a specific and concrete call in this resolution: to commit a week of the summer (Sunday, August 17th through Sunday, August 24th) to spend significant amounts of time in fasting and prayer, inviting the worldwide community of the Church of the Brethren, Christians, and believers of all kinds to join in this commitment to pray and fast for peace and reconciliation.
While members of the Church of the Brethren resolve to spend the week of August 17th in fasting and prayer for our Nigerian brothers and sisters, there is much that we can learn from our Muslim brothers and sisters observing Ramadan right now. Those devout people of faith (and fellow “People of the Book”) who commit to fasting and prayer for an entire month, once a year, out of deep conviction and love for their faith and their neighbors can give us hope and encouragement that fasting is indeed a holy and sacred practice, and one that is best observed in community with others.
Will you consider joining us?
Image Source: Tim Green (Attribution via Flickr)