Last Sunday, Pastor Dimas Salaberrios of Infinity New York Church in The Bronx ended a 24-day hunger strike—with tuna salad. He said he was both in relief and in pain.
The pastor intended that his hunger strike would continue until the city changed its plan to evict religious groups from worshiping in public school buildings during the off-hours. However, he started to experience chest pains last weekend. Medical doctors suggested that he was facing grave dangers. “I was pretty much forced to, my heart rate went up,” he said during a telephone interview with A Journey through NYC religions.
The pastor’s hunger strike is one of the many efforts by Christian groups this month to overturn the city government’s policy. One protest resulted in the arrest of 43 pastors and church members during Mayor Bloomberg’s State of the City Address in the Bronx.
On Sunday protestors from many denominations, races and ethnicities as well as local elected officials will gather at 3:30 pm in Cadman Plaza and march across the Brooklyn Bridge (organizers suggest participants travel on the A train to the High Street stop in Brooklyn). Announced speakers will include the hunger striker Pastor Dimas, Gabriel Salguerro of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, Seungho Yang of the Korean Council of Churches, and Lilian Roberts of Cathedral of Christ Community Ministries.
The outcry is paying off. Councilman Fernando Cabrera, D-Bronx, and State Senator Martin J. Golden, R,C-Brooklyn are leading an effort to withdraw the exemption from free speech rules that New York City schools currently enjoys in state law. This week the NY Senate education committee unanimously passed a bill that would force NYC schools to meet the same free speech standards that schools in the rest of the state are required to meet. Current law allows any NYC community education board to deny usages of schools and school grounds even if it contradicts the free speech provisions of state law. The amendments to the state education law specifically mention that the state’s free speech standards for public schools include the freedom to conduct worship services. Next, the legislation next must meet a vote by the full Senate and the Assembly.
Leaders of the movement are continuing to press for reform of NYC government’s new policy against churches use of public schools for worship services on the off- hours. Now that Pastor Dimas has ended, for health reasons, his attention-getting hunger strike, protest leaders say that the movement will start to emphasize their love for the city and its freedoms through fasting and prayer.
Pastor William Devlin of Manhattan Bible Church in Inwood Heights, is leading the church protestors in fasting. Devlin, who is a co-organizer of the protests, entered the tenth day of his fast last night at 9 pm. Drinking only water, Devlin is now experiencing sleeplessness and “mental fuzziness.” However, as a veteran of fasting, he is prepared to receive regular check-ups from Jeffrey Bado, a doctor specializing in internal medicine.
His reasons for a fast and not a hunger strike are rooted in a theological and political understanding that sees the protest movement as entering a reflective, long-term phase.
He takes inspiration from British devotional works like God’s Chosen Fast by Arthur Wallis and The Intercessor by Norman Grubb. The pastor says, “Fasting changes the world—and it changes me.” He gives four reasons for fasting: to support Pastor Dimas’ example; a demonstration of city-wide solidarity on this issue; spiritual discipline; and to honor God.
Pastor Dimas’ influence on the movement is unmistakable. Devlin says, “I think it's important to advance Pastor Dimas' original vision.” However, there is an interesting evolution of the movement’s reasoning as represented by a change from a hunger strike to a fast.
Hunger striking is a confrontational approach rooted in union strikes and political conflicts. Fasting is rooted in religious devotion to limiting one’s anger and promoting one’s ability to love and show compassion.
Pastor Dimas fashioned his hunger strike as a very public demonstration of his sorrow for the religious groups who are due to be kicked out of the schools on February 12th. The hunger strike got the attention of religious people around the world. Now, the movement wants to knit together the disparate groups into one united movement. Devlin says his and other protestors’ fast is a call for spiritual unity. “From a personal perspective, I receive more of God's power here on Earth [when fasting]. I want to stay focused [on] that this is a fast.”
Devlin takes his inspiration from the Jewish scriptures, particularly the Book of Esther. This story is well-known as the inspiration of the Jewish holiday of Purim. The book depicts the story of Queen Esther who called for a fast of solidarity to prevent a plot to slaughter the Jews in Persia. Devlin believes the fast of Esther indicates that a fast strengthens people’s hearts and their link to God. It appears that the movement is uniting its forces and preparing for a long battle.
Pastor Dimas and Devlin are busy working on the next big event, a mass march across the Brooklyn Bridge. Over 1,000 people are expected to attend. But what does this prayer march really hope to achieve?
According to Pastor Devlin, there are two objectives for the event: to pray that hearts and minds of influential people will be changed; and to see that God's people worship together in unity. It is a message of both activism and spiritual development.
When A Journey through NYC religions asked how many people are confirmed for police detainment this Sunday, he replied, “We believe that part of our strategy is complete. No one will be arrested.” But the pastor says that this stage of the protest will emphasize their love for the city. He hopes that this is one demonstration that will cause city hearts to feel the love and be changed.