One of the unexpected benefits of fasting during Ramadan is that it unleashed my creativity. Because I don’t have as much energy for busy-ness and activism while fasting, I spend as much time as possible reading and writing. During my second Ramadan fast I wrote and published this story which is based on my experiences fasting during Ramadan. It reflects my ongoing relationship with homeless people, which is an essential part of my spiritual life. I take to heart Matthew 25, in which Jesus says, “As you do to the least of these, you do for me.” Interestingly, the Prophet Muhammad said something almost identical in one of his Hadith (Qudsi 18):
‘O son of Adam, I fell ill and you visited Me not.’ He will say: ‘O Lord, and how should I visit You when You are the Lord of the worlds?’ He will say: ‘Did you not know that My servant So-and-so had fallen ill and you visited him not? Did you not know that had you visited him you would have found Me with him?”
As my story shows, God is found in our relationship with the poor, the incarcerated, and the marginalized. And fasting helps us to feel more viscerally the need for social justice, hence the title for this story.
After September 11, 2001, like many Americans, I felt overwhelmed with emotions—fear, anger, despair—and decided to fast during Ramadan as a way to get centered and to reach out in solidarity to my Muslim neighbors. They were amazed that a non-Muslim would have the self-discipline to fast and were pleased that I was taking their religion seriously. I started going to interfaith events and became active in the interfaith peace movement. I have been observing the Ramadan fast for the past six years.
Little did I realize when I started this spiritual practice how much I would learn from the simple act of refraining from food and liquids from sunrise to sunset for a month. Nor did I realize how Ramadan would help me to appreciate, at a gut level, the literal as well as symbolic meaning behind Jesus’ words: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice.”
On the first morning of Ramadan this year, I heard a knock at our front door and went to answer it.
It was Clark, a sixty-three-year old man who lives in a nearby apartment with his widowed mother.
Clark comes almost daily to our home because my wife is a pastor and has been helping him and his mother. Clark wears filthy, castoff clothing because he spends a lot of his time foraging for food and other items in dumpsters. My wife and I call him our “dumpster prophet” for reasons that I will explain later.
“Is Pastor Kathleen at home?” he asks, staring at his beaten up shoes, which look as if they once belonged to Vincent Van Gogh.
“She’s out today,” I reply. “Can I help you?
“No,” he says glumly, “I’ll be back.”
“I have some free time if you need anything.”
“Well, if you insist. I need to go to the doctor.”
“I’d be happy to drive you.”
His face brightens. Then he looks down at his shoes and says, “You don’t have to.”
“I want to,” I reply.
I really do want to, but I haven’t always felt that way about Clark. He can be a maddeningly difficult man.
Even my wife, that paragon of patience, lost her cool with Clark five years ago when she first met him. She had just started as pastor of our church, and Clark asked her for a ride to visit his mother in the hospital. As she drove him across town, Clark started to rant about “so-called Christians,” the Crusades, the Inquisition, and televangelists. His anger was so palpable (and scary) that my wife couldn’t stand it any more.
“Enough,” she said in her stern mother voice.
“Enough what?” asked Clark nervously.
“I am a Christian, and I am driving you to the hospital to visit your mother and I DON”T WANT TO HEAR ANY MORE DIATRIBES ABOUT CHRISTIANS.”
She spoke in a voice louder than she intended, and it rattled Clark.
“Stop the car,” he said. “I want to get out.”
“What?” my wife asked in disbelief.
“Let me out,” he insisted. “Right now.”
By now, my wife had really had enough. She pulled over and Clark stormed out of the car.
He didn’t return to the church for over a year.
My wife felt terrible. She felt she had failed as a pastor. But like the proverbial cat, Clark came back. What drew him back was his mother. Clark’s mother Bernice is an 85-year-old invalid who lives in the hope that she will someday win the lottery. Her theology can be summed up with a simple phrase: God owes me.
Because of this faith, Bernice is easy prey for scam artists of all types. If someone from Nigeria calls with wonderful news about her winning a million dollars, she gladly gives him her bank account number so the money can be wired directly. Every time. Without fail. No matter how often her bank account is cleared out. If a televangelist calls asking for $50 to put her on his personalized prayer list, she sends a check. Immediately. Whether she has money in the bank or not. She is the con artist’s dream. The true believer.
Bernice’s bed is covered with junk mail which she lovingly opens in hopes that a letter from God will arrive, with a check for a million dollars.
Bernice drives her son crazy, but he loves her dearly, hopelessly, compulsively. He screams at her to get some sense, and she berates him for being a loser, and nothing ever changes.
Clark came back to the church out of desperation because his mother had blown her widow’s pension on scam artists and her rent check had bounced for the second month in a row. The landlord had finally lost patience and put his foot down, “Pay up or leave.”
So Clark went to the church to ask these “so-called Christians” for help and my wife took up a collection to pay the rent.
When this happened a second time, my wife asked to be given power to manage Bernice’s financial affairs. Clark loved the idea, but his mother was of course resistant, very resistant. My wife can be very persistent as well as sweet and after a year or so, she managed to turn Bernice’s affairs around.
Clark was so grateful that he began bringing us offerings from Trader Joe’s dumpster. I was reluctant at first to accept such gifts, but then I figured, who am I to turn down his expressions of gratitude? And if he lived on dumpster food, why not us? Besides, being able to repay us in this fashion made him so happy.
It didn’t hurt us, either. For over a year, we have not had to buy meat or other luxury food items thanks to Clark.
He brings us not only free food, but also a free sermon. It usually goes something like this: “Look at all this waste! It’s sinful. The dumpster is full of great food like this. It should go to the poor.”
Clark is full of diatribes against the rich and phony. That’s why I call him the “prophet of the dumpster.”
This morning, as I drive Clark to his doctor’s appointment, he looks glummer than usual.
“What’s the matter?” I ask.
“Trader Joe’s has put a lock on the dumpster. They have a new manager who is an elitist s.o.b.”
This is devastating news, even worse than the time during the Christmas holidays when a police officer threatened to fine Clark $350 for dumpster diving. At the time Clark uttered these unforgettably prophetic words: “Only in America do poor people get fined for foraging for food in garbage cans.”
“I am sorry to hear about the lock,” I say.
“Yeah. How am I going to get food for Helen?”
Poor as he is, Clark gives much of his meager treasure to a mentally deranged woman named Helen who lives in a garage and is worse off than he is. Clark is always terribly concerned about Helen’s welfare but like his mother, Helen looks down on him and treats him like dirt.
After the doctor’s appointment, I ask Clark if he has had anything to eat.
“Not really,” he replies.
“Would you like to go to the Chicken Shack?”
He smiles, clearly pleased, and says: “You don have to.”
“I want to.”
So I take Clark to lunch. Since it’s Ramadan, and I won’t be eating or drinking anything until sunset, I watch him feast on fried chicken and biscuits dipped in gravy. I am surprised at how much pleasure I feel. Even though my stomach is rumbling, my heart is full of gratitude for Clark. I can’t explain why exactly. He has become part of my spiritual family, I guess.
One of the purposes of the Ramadan fast is to help us to feel empathy for those who are poor. But Ramadan is not simply about self-denial. You fast from food and liquids during the daylight hours, but in the evening you feast (and pray) with family and friends. This is called iftar, the breaking of the fast.
My Muslim friends always laugh when I tell them that Ramadan has taught me a valuable lesson about God’s infinite grace: we are asked to give up something small, like lunch, and then given a banquet and good company.
During Ramadan I am invited to numerous iftars where I experience the gracious hospitality of my Muslim friends. These iftars are precious opportunities for interfaith conversation, and for profound encounters.
This year my wife and I are invited to the annual banquet and iftar of the Shura Council of Southern California.
When I arrive, I am amazed and delighted to see my friend Abdul Jabar Hamdan.
Flash back to a year ago: I am waiting outside near the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention center on Terminal Island near San Pedro, the harbor of Los Angeles. Terminal Island is where the first Japanese Americans were rounded up and taken off to concentration, excuse me, relocation camps sixty some years ago. Over one thousand Japanese fisherman and their families were taken from their homes and locked up. I know all this because there is a memorial to their memory staring me in the face: a bronze statue of two Japanese fishermen hauling in their nets, their weather-beaten faces staring into the harbor.
Now I am sitting at a table with a Catholic nun named Sister Pat and a Jewish lawyer named Barry, and we are waiting to see Hamdan, who has been detained for two years on charges as vague as those against the Japanese.
Hamdan is a Jordanian with a round face and nose and sparkling eyes. He smiles warmly when he see us all crowded together in a visiting area the size of a small phone booth. He speaks of the terrible, overcrowded conditions in the center, but never utters a harsh word about anyone. He is a deeply spiritual man, one of the founders of his mosque.
The charge against him? Twenty-three years ago when he had a student visa, he got sick one semester and dropped from full time to part time status without notifying La Migra. Now he is being threatened with deportation, even though he has lived in this country and raised a family of five without violating a single US law. The reason for his incarceration doesn’t make sense, but it’s the only charge the government could find. His real “crime” is being a fundraiser for an organization that allegedly funneled money to Hamas, but the government can’t prove that case. So they are holding him on bogus charges and threatening to send him to Jordan, where it is likely he would be jailed, and perhaps tortured.
I come back as often as I can to visit Hamdan. I once met his wife and daughter, a lovely, highly intelligent young woman who recently graduated from Chapman College and wants to be a lawyer.
“Why a lawyer?” I ask.
“I want to fight for justice,” she tells me. “For people’s rights.”
I tell her that I know she will succeed. I tell her a representative from our state assembly spoke at a recent political rally and explained he was born in a Japanese internment camp, in Manzanar, and got his law degree. He now is serves on our State Legislature.
“You will be like him,” I tell Hamdan’s daughter. “Someday.”
That evening as I visit Hamdan at the detention center, I tell him about my encounter with his daughter. He touches his heart and kisses the thick, bullet-proof glass that separates us.
Then I saw Hamdan darkly, through enigmatic glass. Now, at the Shura Council, I see him face-to-face. We hug and he kisses me on the cheek, and I kiss him back. It is like a dream. We are joined by Sister Pat and my favorite rabbi, Haim Beliak, who also visited Hamdan in detention—and we have a group hug—Muslim, Jewish, and Christian.
Later we all pray together Muslim-style. I feel inexpressible joy, as if a door has opened and some light from heaven has come streaming into our darkened world.
This Ramadan I also was invited to attend Yom Kippur services by my dear Jewish friend Roni. She teaches special ed children and serves on the Board of the South Coast Interfaith Council. She cares deeply about those who suffer, especially the people of Darfur. This year Roni decided to fast during Ramadan, as well as during Yom Kippur, since both holidays take place during the same month. When I told Roni that I wanted to attend the Yom Kippur service at her synagogue, she was delighted and gave me a ticket.
I was honored and pleased. In fact, I was so eager to go to this service that when I got a phone call from Marissa and Shaun, a homeless couple who asked for a place to stay on this rainy night, I replied hastily, “Sorry, I can’t help you right now. I’m in a hurry to go to a special religious service.”
Throughout the beautiful Kol Nidre service on Friday night, I thought about this couple and felt terrible. I remembered Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan and realized that I had fallen into the same trap as the religious folks who ignored the injured man on the side of the side as they hurried to Jerusalem.
The next morning I called Marissa and was relieved to hear that she and her fiancé had scrounged up some money for a motel room.
Marissa is in her early 30s and is unable to work full-time. She has a degenerative joint disease that causes her to fall down a lot. Unless she receives proper treatment, she will soon end her up in a wheelchair, like her father (who also lives on the street much of the time). Marissa is also legally blind. She receives around $700 a month in SSI, not enough for an apartment in this area, so she is waiting for Section 8, that will entitle her to low cost housing. She has been waiting nearly two years. Her fiancé Shaun is highly intelligent but has not been able to find a full-time job since he has to protect and take care of Marissa.
While waiting for government assistance, they suffer all kinds of indignities. They are constantly harassed by police. They have been robbed. Marissa’s friend was raped while sleeping on the sidewalk not far from her.
My wife’s little church provides them with a motel room once a week during the winter months. We bring them food when we can, but what we offer is a mere band aid.
On the morning of Yom Kippur I got them a room for one night at the El Dorado Motel. Then I drove over to the synagogue to attend the Yom Kippur services. The music was exquisite, but I couldn’t enjoy it. I felt sick and faint. Usually I am able to handle the hunger pangs that arise during the Ramadan fast, but this was something worse. My throat was parched, my head ached, and I was dizzy. I was convinced that I had come down with some kind of bug.
Around lunch time I couldn’t take it any more so I drove home. On my way, I had the urge to call Marissa and Shaun and invited them to lunch. They accepted my invitation with gratitude. We went to Pollo Loco and scarfed down chicken and tortillas and beans as Marissa told funny, sad stories about the day she married her ex-husband.
After lunch I went home and slept like a baby. Much to my surprise, I woke up feeling refreshed and healthy.
I told my Jewish and Muslim friends that I had “broken the fast” on the holiest day of the year, but they assured me that I still get points from God because I fed the homeless. That’s one thing that Jews and Muslims agree about: God is a gracious accountant.
I could not begin to tell all the things that happened during this Ramadan: an interfaith youth event, an anti-war march, an interfaith prayer service, a peace walk with Tich Naht Hanh. My belly was often empty, but my heart was full and my cup was running over. So let me flash forward to the last day of Ramadan.
There’s a commotion outside my door at around 8:00 AM.
I open the door and see Clark on his broken down bicycle. He has a large plastic bag loaded with goodies and he’s smiling ear-to-ear.
“Good news,” he says. “The lock is off the dumpster.”
“Praise be to God,” I reply.
Then he hands me six or seven plastic containers of artichokes. I protest that we can’t possibly use them all, and he replies: “Take ‘em. I’ve got an infinite supply. And your wife loves ‘em.”