When we moved to the United States, my mother volunteered at a place in Dayton, Ohio called the House of Bread. They primarily fed the hungry and homeless, with many coming in with children. I felt it was a way for my mother to keep busy as a Kenyan woman wanting to work but unable to do so because she didn’t have the papers to. I loved going there as a child because of the endless flow of people coming in and out. I got to know the workers and the people we were serving, often wondering where someone was if they had missed a day or two. As I grew older I realized that at that moment we were preserving life.
Later on my parents took in a Caucasian worker to help my father with his business and he stayed in one of our buildings and ate dinner with us. Why won’t he shave, I wondered, watching him intently as he nervously waited for his plate. Why did he seem to carry his life in a worn-out briefcase, I thought, waiting for a moment when he would part from his soul possession. I eventually learned that he could read and write code for websites, that he was a genius that was often dismissed as being dirty, disheveled, and unnatural to many. I remember he would often ask for more food after dinner and hide it between the cracks of his briefcase.
When my younger sister moved to Chicago after college our Sunday ritual included playing chess at a local cafe. We would spend hours trying to beat each other, hoping that with each rematch we had learned enough to beat the opponent and keep our King safe by not losing our Queen. During one of these matches we met a woman and her father. They told us they were hungry and we offered to buy them coffee and sweets. We taught them to play chess even though I thought they were there to simply hide from Chicago’s frigid winter. When my sister asked their names the woman said, “No one ever asks my name.”
A few weeks later my sister ran into them on her way to work. She informed me that the bus had been packed and she couldn’t stand by them and talk; that she had greeted the woman with a “Hello. How are you?” and the woman insisted she was not speaking to her because she was homeless. My sister was heartbroken and we went to the cafe on various Sundays hoping they would show and play chess with us. Unfortunately, they never came back.
During a month long trip to Europe, I took a morning walk to a local church and ran into a woman lying on the ground in Transylvania, Romania. “You’re a tourist?” she asked, “Yes.” I replied. She held up her cup and shook it, revealing what little change she had collected and I tried not to stare since she was the first black woman I had met during my stay in Romania.
A few years later, when I went to visit my sister in Portland, Oregon we gave a few dollars to a homeless man begging for food. As we set in the restaurant eating I saw two men beating him for what little change he had collected standing at the corner for eight hours. As we watched the men run in separate directions we knew the days work had been lost.
When I left my job as a Video Production Instructor six months ago hunger seemed to be the norm in many charter schools, with some offering meals and others leaving teenagers to fend for themselves throughout the day. I remember when I asked my students to choose prizes they often asked for donuts, Cheetos or a McDonald’s meal – all unhealthy substitutions that fit their price range. If I brought a cup of hot chocolate a student would ask me to pick one for him or her the next day. While eating a meal, a student would question if I bought it, insisting I should have brought him or her a meal too.
It wasn’t uncommon to hear a student’s stomach growl during a presentation, or for a student to beg another student for food in the middle of a lesson. Many of them laughed off the jokes that would follow from their classmates, but the realization of ones economic status and needs stuck in my mind much longer.
So, when Pastor Bayo Adewole at Jesus House Chicago asked our congregation to start the new year off by doing a one hundred day fast I didn’t know what to expect. He suggested we use this opportunity to think about our destiny and what we wanted to pray for this year. Honestly, I didn’t know what to pray for. I asked my friends and some said to pray for my career, others suggested I pray that my husband find me this year, while many said I should tie it to my destiny. The truth is I pray for all of those things on a regular basis.
Then I decided to do the seven day dry fast, which meant I could only have water and tea. While I understood the concept of sacrifice and was fully committed to praying while fasting, I was doing it for selfish reasons – to lower the number of days I would have to do the regular fast. I initially thought I would complete the thirty days, but realized I was naive in thinking I could surpass seven days. For starters, I broke all of the rules of fasting: 1) I didn’t consult with my doctor. 2) I stopped cold turkey. 3) I ignored my anemia. 4) I cleared my apartment of ALL food. 5) I didn’t tell my family what I was doing.
The truth is I wouldn’t have done it any other way, and to be fair I did have a support group of close friends that I considered my safety nest. The first three days seemed to be a breeze with bursts of energy and the sudden inability to physically move. By the fifth day I lacked the will power to leave my bed. I remember one morning waking up taking a shower and returning to bed. Brushing my teeth, returning to bed. Drinking water, and yes, returning to bed. Having been an ambassador of tea, I found it to be tasteless and blend. I tried not be irritated by questions, and reread emails two or three times before sending them out. I found myself unproductive unless I was praying. For someone that has always believed in prayer and action it was hard for me to do one without the other. I canceled a much anticipated trip to visit a college friend in Detroit realizing our adventures would included ice skating and museums, two activities the pre-dry fast Philister would have loved but now I simply saw as requiring too much physical strength.
When I eventually told my mother I was done doing the dry fast, she replied, “You were fasting? Yes, you always do those crazy things, like skydiving.” She’s right, I’ve mostly lived a life of adventure, or recklessness depending on who you ask. But this was different. It was the first time I truly felt I was committing to something fully based on faith, and the longer I stuck to it the more I thought of those I had met over the years, reaching out for what may be their final meal of the day. I thought, how many of them had doctors to call on and tell them they were being stupid for going hungry for a week? How many of those doctors would see them without insurance? How many would remember their names?
On a personal level, I would never recommend my method of fasting. I too am guilty of such acts of unkindness. How I sometimes make the assumption that it was alcohol, drugs or a disability that led to someone being homeless, hungry and/or alone. Yet I realize, I, like many others would only be a few months away from homelessness and/or hunger if I lost my job.
During the end of my seven day dry fast I was laying in bed and I could tell the sun was starting to rise from the bluish color of the sky peaking in through my window. I thought, I’m going to die here and no one will ever know! After all, my friends had offered to get me anything, that is anything except food, and I was trying to decide if I could walk to the closest grocery store. Many of them offered words of wisdom, Bible verses and their inability to break my rules because they thought I would blame them (which apparently was the worst punishment they could receive). It’s true, I would have blamed the first person to give in to my pleas with a Five Guys cheeseburger in hand, but only after a hug and a few bites of the cheeseburger. I laughed at the irony of the situation. The idea that one could die from a decision she made not to eat. I also thought of how millions of people die of hunger every year without making it a choice and how we often ignore this fact.
I thought back to those days at the House of Bread, to the happiness it brought me to see people giving back and to know that we helped someone even if it was just a meal or a day in a warm room. I thought of the Caucasian worker, who to this day sometimes eats at our house, no longer hiding food in his worn-out briefcase. I thought of how he might be using his long moustache to hide the toll living on the streets takes on ones teeth. I thought of the father and daughter, how whenever I start a chess game I think of the daughter as my Queen, and how I am a horrible defensive player because I don’t want her to leave her King. I thought of the scrimmage in Portland, how the need to survive can turn us all into monsters. I thought of the woman in Transylvania, and that hunger spans continents. I thought of my students, how hunger seemed to follow them throughout the day and how they reminded me of my future kids. I thought of my destiny and suddenly death seemed like an afterthought, and I was reminded that we all have to be a part of the solution.
I did not come up with new answers during those seven days, but felt assured that the path to follow was that of love. That if we looked at each other as brothers and sisters, or at the kids we walk past everyday as our own, hunger would be an afterthought and in doing so death by hunger would be a thing of the past.
There’s a plaque that hangs on top of my door, I sometimes look at before I leave. It’s a verse that reminds me of my destiny and fears. It is what I often think of when I pray about my destiny and how I can reach it. I decided to start my prayers with that thought: 1 Corinthians 13:4-7