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Speaking Truth to Power

On Sept. 4, Franciscans joined other Catholics in Newark, N.J., to protest the treatment by the U.S. government officials of families and children crossing the U.S. border. As they did in July, they carried signs and spoke out for the rights of migrant families, reflecting on the Gospel and on Catholic Social Teaching. Below, a friar who participated in both Catholic Days of Action describes the importance of public protest. He was videotaped last week, giving his thoughts on the event and on supporting children. 

Julian Jagudilla at the protest in Newark against the detention of migrants and refugees.  (Photo courtesy of Octavio Duran)

In the past six weeks, large groups of Catholics have gathered in two very public places to protest our government’s treatment of immigrant families, particularly children, on our southern borders. Each venue was consciously chosen: the Russel Senate Office Building in Washington and the Federal Building in Newark, New Jersey.

The U.S. Senate was selected to underscore our legislators’ total failure to enact a just immigration policy for our country and Newark because it houses one of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices.

The reasons for these public protests are well known. Due to a draconian immigration policy known as “zero tolerance,” instituted in 2018, every adult crossing the border into our country without proper documentation is subject to detention and deportation; meanwhile, children are separated from their parents and held in other facilities. In May and June of this year, some 2000 children have been held in horrendous conditions – some even in cages – for weeks and now months beyond the 1997 (Flores) regulation that obliges immigrant agents to free children from detention after 72 hours!

Biblical Mandates
Quite appropriately, this stain on our government’s soul has aroused the indignation of most Americans, including, of course, the Catholic groups mentioned above. Our actions at these two venues were vivid examples of the Gospel mandate to “speak truth to power” both as American citizens and as followers of Jesus.

Marie Dennis, OFS, and Pat Sieber at the protest in Newark. (Photo courtesy of Octavio Duran)

The archbishop of Newark, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, affirmed the validity, and indeed the necessity, for such public actions when on the streets of his city he cited American free speech and biblical mandates as reasons for the action taking place. The cardinal was particularly forceful in mentioning God’s word in the Book of Leviticus “you shall treat the alien … no differently than the natives born among you… for you too were once aliens…” (Leviticus 19:34) He spoke of Jesus’ own judgment recorded the 25th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel: “Blessed are you by my Father… for I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matt:25:35). [He might also have spoken of Jesus’ further judgment: “you accursed… I was a stranger and you gave me no welcome.” (Matt 25:43) The cardinal stood with the protesters for two hours signaling that he approved and blessed this action.

These two events were entirely Catholic. People of other faith traditions joined us, but both actions clearly reflected Catholic Social Teaching, especially the spirituality that underscores it. The key moments of each protest were enveloped in the recitation of the Rosary. For the Sorrowful Mysteries, specific cases were cited of little ones whose horrendous experiences of this “zero tolerance” policy have traumatized them. It was almost amusing to note that warnings by the police to those of us committing civil disobedience were mixed with choruses of “Our Father who art in heaven…; Holy Mary, Mother of God…”

Personally, I found that participating in these events was a wonderful meditation on the call to a preferential option for the poor and truly a holy action. In fact, at one moment I reflected that what we were doing was sacramental – a gesture, a sign that pointed to something quite more than itself. Our simple act of blocking a passageway in a hall of Congress or traffic on a cross street in Newark to protest the violation of vulnerable human beings on our southern borders clearly directed attention to that totally larger picture of children ripped from their parents and herded into holding pens like little animals. Sacraments in the public square.

And there was Civil Disobedience — a further dimension of sacrament: willingness to undergo arrest and incarceration in a public way to underscore the unlawful situation of parents and children held like felons — separately and against their will, and with disregard for all humane considerations.

Continued Public Actions
Civil Disobedience follows the example of the arrest of disciples for public actions, described often in the Acts of the Apostles — or of St. Francis making a very public effort to forestall a crusade, of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer protesting publicly the evils of their times.

Civil disobedience at the protest in Newark. (Photo courtesy of Octavio Duran)

These actions by our Catholic population will continue as long as this administration continues its “zero tolerance” policies, which are doing untold harm to our immigrant sisters and brothers,  and especially to their children. The next such action is to take place at the border between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

A final reflection: Franciscan presence especially in Newark was quite evident and appreciated. And so, as the six OFM provinces of the United States continue the process of becoming one entity, part of their stated objective of the Order’s Revitalization in this country surely must be such public actions when called for – written, proclaimed (especially in our pulpits) and acted out – actions that speak Gospel truths to power. We simply cannot be absent from participation in such public sacramental moments.

“I have done what is mine to do, may you do what is yours.”

– Joe, who professed his final vows as a Franciscan in 1955, is stationed in Washington, D.C., where he lives at in the Assisi Community. He works at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Arlington, Virginia, as pastoral associate for the parish Latino Community.

Editor’s note: Photos of some of the HNP friars who participated in the Catholic Day of Action in NJ/NYC can be seen in this  articles  in The Huff Post.

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