Neither Trump, nor his advisors, have shown any notice of Byler’s daily efforts, but that was not Byler’s expectation. The executive director of Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding had other reasons for fasting and for reflecting, as he has daily since Ash Wednesday, on the passages of the Presbyterian Daily Lectionary.
This final missive, though, shared a soul still restless: “When I would wake at night during this fast, my prayer for you has been that you would have a Damascus Road encounter like the one Saul experienced,” writes Byler. “Saul’s dynamic energies were misfocused until he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. It changed his life. And his considerable gifts became channeled in ways that changed the world for the better.”
The choice is whether to govern by “domination, power politics and strong arming,” or by “collaboration, consensus-building, humility and service,”— the former divisive and conflict-ridden, the latter that modeled by Jesus.
Byler’s daily reflections during the Healing Justice Fast were followed by more than 1,100 people from 66 countries.
From Ash Wednesday until the Sunday before Easter, Byler partook only of juice and water, reading and writing as he sought clarity—through God’s presence and wisdom—in a challenging time both for his own leadership, and that of his country.
“Fasting for me is a way of centering and calling attention to important issues,” Byler said, before beginning the fast. “Typically in the Bible, fasting is used at a time when there does seem to be a lot at stake, as an expression of placing oneself in a posture of deeply listening to God and one’s self and to others.”
The fast spanned 40 days of the president’s first 100 days in office: from the March 6 travel ban to the March 17 “America First” budget, which called for $54 billion increase in military spending and $3 billion for a border wall, to the failure of Congress to take action March 24 on the Affordable Care Act and an April 6 air strike on Syrian air bases in retaliation for the chemical weapons attack.
Byler also mourned the loss of EMU alumnus and UN official M.J. Sharp, kidnapped and killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with two others.
The consequences of some of these actions have resonated through CJP faculty, staff and students — not only those currently on campus — but also those waiting on visas to travel to the Summer Peacebuilding Institute. One woman, unafraid to dialogue with violent extremists in her own country, has decided not to come to SPI. She fears a negative reception.
On a daily basis, Byler says he was reminded of the importance of Anabaptist values of peace and nonviolence, and of the extra-ordinary opportunities of the work that he shares with colleagues at EMU and around the world.
Several people joined Byler on his fast, some for days at a time and others for specific days. Another promised to set aside time for daily prayer in his support and for the president.
Byler says he was grateful for the companionship on the journey. Of the hundred emails he received, the majority expressed gratitude for his efforts, for the integration of faith with commitment towards building peace and the healing power of justice.
His words are a daily “challenge and inspiration,” wrote one reader. Another expressed thanks for the clear direction that “we all need to listen and that we are all responsible for repairing the deep divisions in our country and church communities right now.”
In the end, the fast “changed me,” Byler said, “reminding me of just how deeply held and dissimilar the views of those on the left and right are about President Trump. But wrestling with the Daily Lectionary readings each day also made me more hopeful about God’s readiness to transform and redeem even the most hopeless seeming of situations – if we are willing partners.”