Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice . . . To let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? — Isaiah 58: 6
At nineteen I am traveling Europe with friends during the winter break from college in England, in December of ‘71. Each of us has a Eurail pass, which guarantees a place to sleep every night on the train if you don’t mind waking up in a different country.
We have split up for a few days, so I am on my own, traveling from Switzerland to Austria. Funds from home had not arrived by the time we left for the Continent, and I am in Austria when I run out of money. All I have are a few coins from some of the countries I have passed through. There is no possibility of getting money from home, so I will wait it out. Perhaps, when I meet my friend again, he can float me a small loan to get me through until I can get back to college.
I step into a bakery shop in Vienna, sort through the coins in my pocket, but I realize I don’t have enough even for a bun. So, back out into the grey and freezing day, one of the coldest winters in Europe for years. I walk and walk to keep warm, stopping in shops along the way and jamming my hands in my jean pockets. I am to meet my friend that day at the train station, so I walk there and back and there again, throughout the day, but something has happened, and he does not arrive.
One day without food becomes two, and then three. At night, I take the train to another city, someplace like Munich, arriving at three a.m. I wait an hour or two and then take a five a.m. train to still another city. The first twenty-four hours I fantasize about food, the second day I have cramping hunger pangs, but by the third day, although I am getting lightheaded and walking slower, my senses have sharpened. I almost feel euphoric. It seems to me—in this state—that going without food isn’t so bad, and that if I had to, I could keep this up indefinitely.
I begin to notice people I might not have seen otherwise. People slumped in the shadows around the train stations I am frequenting. People in doorways, on park benches, huddled under bridges. They remind me of how privileged I am and that my discomfort, such as it is, will be temporary. Unlike them, I have a ticket out of here. That is my ultimate insurance policy; if things get really bad, I know someone in Davos I can stay with. And eventually, Lord willing, my friend and I will meet up again.
So, I drop deeper into this experience, discovering the boundaries and limitations of fasting, plumbing the depths of spirit and temperament, absorbing and examining physical exhaustion and cold. In some way not completely clear to me, I am trying on the cloak of poverty and homelessness, all the while knowing that my situation is still salvageable, not hopeless.
On the evening of the fourth day, during the week leading up to Christmas, I am waiting on the train platform of a town in Switzerland. It is about ten p.m. A raucous party is in session just inside the station doors. Through the windows I can see steins being raised, songs sung, tables and tables of food and wine, flushed faces, red cheeks, and Christmas cheer. I am alone on the platform.
Suddenly, the door bursts open, and a young man strides out with a tray full of pastries, fruit, and a beer. He is smiling broadly, and through the open door behind him I can see people clustered together, peering at me and throwing kisses. He sets the tray down on the bench beside me and shouts, “Ist gut?” He gestures back to the people behind him. “Merry Christmas!” he says, and bows. There is a beery chorus of “Merry Christmas!” from the crowd and much lifting of steins. I am almost speechless, but I manage a “Ja, das ist gut!” My train is huffing in, so I stuff as much as I can of everything into my pack, bow to the young man and the crowd, and with new energy hop aboard as they wave me into the night.
Years later, riding the Metro in Washington, D.C., day after day, to job interviews that invariably went well but produced nothing, I felt again the pangs of desperation that hit me during the first day of my enforced fast. I could overhear young lawyers in the seats around me complaining about their seventy-hour weeks and the costs of maintaining their BMWs, and I inwardly rolled my eyes. I would have been happy to be overburdened with work of any kind.
Yet, those experiences gave me a taste of how people think and feel when their lifelines fail. There is a sense of helplessness. The usual means we have of making things happen are gone. Without money we are first impotent and later invisible. Money is power, however temporary and ultimately illusory. With it, we extend ourselves into the world around us and affect changes that benefit us and others. Without it, we eventually become invisible. But before we become invisible, we first undergo a blurring, a smearing, of our lines of identity. Our desperation leaks out, however feverishly we repress it. It makes people nervous; they cover their mouth as if we had coughed in their face. They look away and mumble. You can see the panic in their eyes.
The invisibility comes later. Some become invisible because their skin color blends with the shadows, some because they are shockingly decrepit and ragged. Others become invisible because of age. Some years ago, in a local Panera, I was moving toward the coffee machines when an elderly woman crossed my path. I stopped to let her by, and she looked up at me and said, “Thank you for noticing me.”
I have talked to people in homeless shelters who were stunned at how quickly they found themselves on the street. For some, two missed paychecks meant eviction. There were no savings to fall back on, no credit lines to be extended, no relatives in a position to offer help. One day they were working, the next they were laid off. The safety net extended only so far and there were gaps in the webbing that most people fell through. These are truths worn thin on the treadmill of regrets.
Many of us live insulated from the rigors of being poor in the United States. We have a steady income, adequate healthcare, a decent school system. We are safe—for now. But now we are in the midst of a pandemic, the limits of which cannot be determined yet. Our way of life, our routines, so much of what we take for granted, has been and will be, upended to an extent we are only just beginning to discern. There are no guarantees, either for the continuity of our lives or for life itself. Some of us will die from this; many of us will lose family and friends. All of us will be changed by this.
Some have said that we should never let a crisis go to waste. Perhaps the divisive politics of the last several years can be shouldered aside as we face a common enemy. In the words of Jean-Luc Picard from my favorite Star Trek episode: “Danger shared can sometimes bring two people together.”
If we were not convinced before, the spread of the coronavirus should wipe away any denial of how connected we all are. No respecter of boundaries—political, geographical, religious, or ethnic—the virus has revealed how mobile we are, how interdependent we are, how reliant we are on the social contracts of decency, respect, and fairness. In a literal sense, when just one person is afflicted, everyone is at risk. It becomes a powerful metaphor for the ways injustice and inequity destroy a society from within.
Now we have an opportunity to see how deep the bonds of our communities run. How we can respond with resilience to this clear and present danger. How our imaginations can help us find ways to connect despite our distance from each other.
There are more questions than answers in this time. Aside from the medical emergency questions, there are questions that go to our humanity and our humaneness. Going forward after this crisis, how do we bring justice to our healthcare institutions, our network of social services, our educational system, our political priorities, and our sense of who we are as people within countries? These are the perennial challenges within any society; they are not solvable, only made more adaptable and more just. But a crisis of this scale exposes the fissures in our foundations and gives us the opportunity and incentive to rebuild with diligence for a more humane future.
This is the season of Lent for Christians. We are called to reflect upon our past with hope toward our future, to remember that despite our blindness, our mistrust, our flailing about, God-in-Christ loves us still. It is not the healthy who need the doctor, Jesus reminds us, but the ill. That is us; coronavirus or not, we all suffer from pre-existing conditions that threaten our trust and faith. Now is the time to sidestep those “sins which so easily beset us,” and to live into the answers.
I discovered some small-scale truths when I returned to the States after my year in England. Much that I had taken for granted was ephemeral, and that which seemed insubstantial turned out to be rock-solid and everlasting. My fast was not of my choosing, but it did set me free and it broke the yoke that I so blithely carried.