Interfaith coalition calls for public fast in solidarity with Sonoma County’s homeless population

A public fast will be held Thursday, in solidarity with homeless community in Sonoma County.|

The people fasted when the rain didn’t fall.

The people fasted when an army invasion came.

The people fasted when pestilence ravaged their community.

This was the ancient practice of Jewish communities that Rabbi Irwin Keller had read about. So, after witnessing the needs of Sonoma County’s homeless population particularly amid the recent winter storms, he was stirred to organize a local public fast.

“What happens when you change these habits? When you’re taken out of regular existence?” said Keller, the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati. “Think about how much time we have to volunteer, contemplate and become more aware of what’s happening around us.”

Keller is the mastermind behind Interfaith Public Fast, a Sonoma County coalition founded in 2022 and composed of people of faith and conscience who engage in communitywide interfaith and spiritual action.

The coalition’s first public fast — in solidarity with local individuals experiencing homelessness — will begin at dawn Thursday and end at dusk. It’s one of the group’s many future public fasts to protest and grieve injustices taking place locally or globally.

Over 50 community members are expected to participate Thursday as a form of prayer or of political protest. Keller cautioned, however, the fast is not a substitute for taking action. The fast is about preparing oneself to show up better in the community — sort of like starting off with a clean slate, he said.

“We want to take action from a good place, from a place of deep intention,” Keller said.

After the fast, people will gather from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at The Living Room Life Center, located at 1335 N. Dutton Ave. in Santa Rosa, to conclude and learn about local homeless service providers, hear from volunteers who have experienced homelessness, and ways to help.

“We read and hear about homelessness in our county, we read about government responses and people’s personal responses,” Keller said. “This isn’t simply a problem of policy, there’s an issue here of human dignity and compassion.”

The fast will break with music and prayer at The Living Room and the gathering will focus on facing the realities of those experiencing homelessness through conversations about what’s driving homelessness in Sonoma County.

“The conversation isn’t going to end Thursday evening,” said Cindy Pasko, executive director of The Living Room Center. “This conversation will continue. I have great hope for this.”

The ancient tradition of fasting is used in many religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Baha’i and Sanátana Dharma, as a practice to mourn, grieve, pray and seek guidance.

Those unable to abstain from food and water will instead fast technology, consumerism or other habits that draw their attention, including entertainment or small talk, Keller said.

The Rev. Christy Laborda Harris, rector at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Sebastopol, views fasting as a way to “create space” for more awareness. She has previously participated in retreats where she fasted technology and even verbal speech.

Thursday will be her first time fasting food, but she said she’s not giving up water. She’ll fast as she works from home Thursday and will be busy picking up her kids from school as usual.

“As the day passes, you’ll feel hunger or fatigue. Those are reminders that I’m standing in solidarity with different faiths and those who are unhoused,” said Harris, 41. “The absence can give space to something more — something new.”

Rabbi George Gittleman, of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, will fast food and water. He’s fasted for Yom Kippur — the annual Day of Atonement and holiest day in Judaism — since he was a kid.

While Thursday’s 12-hour fast isn’t the same as he’s practiced all his life, which calls for a full 24 hours of fasting, he hopes it will spark charge and be a way for the community to “flex spiritual muscles.”

“My hope is we’ll wake up as a society and community. I hope it will stir our hearts, shed light on struggles of our unsheltered community,” said Gittleman, 60. “I hope it will spark change, healing and action.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mya Constantino at @searchingformya on Twitter.

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