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Walking with Immigrants on Ash Wednesday

March 10, 2011

By Sister Diane G.

Ash Wednesday dawned crisp and clear and sunny as a small group of people gathered at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, NJ. We stood together on the front of the footbridge to what was once the “golden door,” Ellis Island. In the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, we stood praying, chanting and bearing signs that proclaimed: “No human being is illegal” and “The pursuit of happiness is not a crime.” Others carried small signs bearing the names of immigrants at the Detention Center in Elizabeth, NJ, which was our final destination, 12.5 miles away.

A quick glance at the group revealed a mother with a small child in a stroller, women religious and priests, those who are undocumented, young and old alike united in a cry for justice for our immigrant brothers and sisters and for a comprehensive reform of the United States immigration policies.

The theme for the pilgrimage: “Lament, Compassion, Solidarity, Conversion.” As the pilgrims embarked upon their journey their hopes were to:

• Lament the current laws, policies and attitudes that increase the suffering of immigrants,

• show Compassion for the suffering of immigrants in our communities,

• speak and act in Solidarity with immigrants

• and pray for Conversion of hearts.

The pilgrims stopped at several religious sites as well as those places that represent the current reality for immigrants. At the initial stop, at Assumption-St. Mary Church, we were greeted by several of our immigrant brothers and sisters offering prayers for safety for all fleeing from oppression as well as for those walking in the demonstration. The Islamic Center of Jersey City also opened its doors and hearts in warm welcome. After a chanting of verse from the Koran and providing a translation, the group was gifted with a copy of an English translation of the Muslim holy book, reminding us that we are all united in our efforts toward creating a welcoming presence for all peoples of the earth.

Our next stop proved to be a bit more challenging. At the Essex County Detention Center, the “home” to more than 500 immigrants, with plans for an additional 2700 beds, we encountered correction officers who banned us from the parking area. Crossing the street to stand in front of the facility also caused a conflict and we were forced to move a considerable distance from the jail. However, our spirits were quickly lifted when we were joined by 35 students and teachers from Elizabeth Seton High School. These young people, many who have been personally affected by family members’ deportations, raised a cry for justice that could not be ignored. Truckers, many with immigrants at the wheel, beeped and waved as they passed and read our protest signs. How this invigorated the tiring group of pilgrims!

Other stops included a Portuguese church where we ended our prayer by forming a circle that encompassed the entire interior of the church and offered petitions; the following stops included the building housing the Federal immigration Court and the offices of Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE).

At our final destination, the Elizabeth Detention Center, we were joined by 100 other marchers. By now it was turning dark and at a candlelight vigil we continued our prayers for immigration reform but intensified our petitions asking for conversion of heart for us and for our entire nation.

I must admit that I did not walk the entire 12.5 miles of this march but provided transportation for those needing a break from walking or from the cold. I was amazed at the stamina of the pilgrims and their determination to continue as the day grew colder and more windy and dark. I cannot help but feel that in some ways this is a reflection of our current situation regarding immigration but that we must continue the journey to its end, determined to see light at the end as we did amid the candles of those gathered outside the Detention Center.

As often as the wind extinguishes the light, we must be at the ready to re-ignite the flame. Our discomfort, our discouragement at the lack of progress in realizing change is nothing in comparison to the darkness, degradation and lack of dignity experienced by our brother and sisters who find themselves trapped in an unjust, compassionless immigration system. We do not have the luxury of being discouraged or ending the struggle. We must support each other in this effort to bring about a more just immigration system.

The quote on the marchers’ shirts bears witness to our hope: “We act justly, not because we are intellectually convinced, but because we are passionately moved. Compassion moves the will to justice.” (Rev. Bryan Massingale)

The Mid-Atlantic Community of the Sisters of Mercy invites all to pray for immigrants throughout Lent, using a prayer generously written by Mary Kay Eichman, RSM.

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