The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Health & Family

August 8, 2013

Aisha Sultan: Fasting with non-Muslims

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — My stomach is growling while I'm writing this. I'm thirsty and a little cranky and have already violated the rule about abstaining from swearing while fasting.

(I work in a newsroom. There must be dispensation for language.)

I suppose I've also ruined my effort to make it through the month of Ramadan without complaining about hunger and its related side effects.

In theory, I look forward to this month when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. I can appreciate the discomfort that a prolonged period of fasting can provoke. It's a constant reminder of how plentiful food and clean water are in my life. I realize that I have more self-control and discipline than I typically exercise. Like any worthwhile spiritual practice, it offers a chance for reflection.

But the month also wears on me -- headaches, fatigue and a dramatic drop in patience as sunset approaches. This year, I wanted to try something different: I offered to make a donation to the St. Louis Area Foodbank for each person who wanted to fast a day during the month. I was curious to learn from the experiences of people who wanted to try.

I put out the offer on social media and soon had a roster of volunteers. Those who accepted the challenge are from a variety of faith traditions, including agnostics and atheists.

Whether they were first-time fasters or had observed a similar practice in their own faiths, I asked them to reflect on their motivations and the daylong experiences.

Anna Branch, 37, from California, says she is Russian and was brought up during communism. She was not allowed to learn anything about religion.

"I was 15 when my family moved to the States. Only then I learned that part of my family is Russian Orthodox, Catholic and Jewish. At this point, religion is too late for me," she wrote. But she wants her children to know and experience different religions. Her teenage son also wanted to fast, but he is diabetic. Instead, he spent a day researching and learning about Ramadan.

"Understanding and acceptance that we are all different is the best lesson I can give them," Branch said. As for her day of fasting, she said, "Life took over today. I did not get a minute to pause, think and reflect. Maybe this is why Ramadan is a month and not one day. I will do another one tomorrow."

Madeline Roberts Vann, 39, a practicing Christian from Virginia, said she tried the fast, but was so hungry and shaky by noon that she didn't think it wise to continue. She matched my donation with a donation to her local food bank, for a program that gives children in need backpacks of food to get them through the weekends during the school year.

She also shared a thought from an Old Testament prophet. Isaiah 58:6-7 often comes up during the times when Christians fast, she said: "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter -- when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?"

Sarah Windham, 31, from Texas, also a practicing Christian, said she experienced some ups and downs during the day, especially when she was cooking and preparing meals for her family.

"I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting from the day. Perhaps some spiritual connection or awakening? Some emotional pull that would make me a better Christian?" she wrote.

In the afternoon, she sat down in the hallway while her children played in the other room.

"I had made it to the halfway point in the day and was disheartened to find that the fast wasn't producing what I wanted it to. I didn't feel closer to God. I didn't feel more peaceful or filled with joy. Instead, I felt the same, but now with more guilt at having not felt something more. ... Then I realized, that wasn't the point. I didn't need some spiritual awakening. I didn't need to feel some emotional high. Rather, I simply needed to be still before God. I needed to quiet the noises in my life and just listen."

She said that in the days following her fast, she did feel a sense of change.

"While the experience may not have met my expectations, it did confirm that this journey isn't about me, but about God," she wrote.

Her experience was markedly different than that of Brian Sirimaturos, 38, of Missouri, who confessed: "My biggest motivation for fasting was purely so that when I talked to my Catholic grandparents that night, who are from southeast Mo., I could tell them I was fasting for Ramadan."

He said he called them, which "may have been deliberate," during "The O'Reilly Factor."

"I waited all day for that," he said. "Plus it kept my mind off of eating and drinking."

Normally, I have a heightened sense of gratitude during Ramadan. But all the people who fasted with me outside of any religious obligation -- simply to broaden their perspectives, show support, raise a few dollars for charity or, in Brian's case, provoke their relatives -- reminded me of a different sort of blessing: open-hearted, open-minded people the world over.

Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age while trying to keep up with her tech-savvy children. Find her on Twitter: @AishaS.


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