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The election of Donald Trump has galvanized millions and driven a deep introspection of values of welcome and understanding. When we set out to respond to the travel bans and deportations that have taken place in the US for decades, we sought to communicate a particularly Catholic response. By definition, catholicism mean "whole-making", to reconcile divergent and broken parts in order to re-member their oneness.
During this most holy of Christian seasons, we allowed our faith to guide us and believed in the possibility of reaching out to all those New Yorkers, clergy, religious, and laity, in the Archdiocese who might be moved by the story, experience, and struggle of people migrating across borders and escaping marginalization as the early Holy Family had done during their time. In turn, through prayer and song, and during a season of repentance, what would it mean for Catholics --and Americans more widely-- to reconcile with their own complicity in this oppression and their place in its resolution?
A reverence for the Mother of God served as a backdrop for this action, and the response from passerby, family, friends, and strangers provided the strongest testament to the need for our church and Church leaders to stand with the people who struggle most dramatically under these oppressive and prejudicial policies. What will our faith call us to next? How will we live as if the truth is true? When will our community of faith-filled, Christ-centered people begin embracing the inheritance that calls us to demand justice and love for all?
The rain blessed us. Each drop reminded us that the saints stand witness to this Gospel message of welcome. Wet and wind strewn only served to further inspire the praying and singing on the steps of St. Pat's Cathedral. Calls for courage rang out, and the insistence that our Church leadership and laity do more to oppose efforts to inflict fear and panic in and violence toward our sisters and brothers desperately seeking sanctuary. What are borders to families in need of safety? What are walls to individuals in search of dignity and work? What are bans to people exercising their right to free movement visiting loved ones?
Holy Mother, we continue to call upon your intercession to open wide the hearts of all people of all faiths centered upon a Spirit of Love.
New hands join us to raise our banner each week. We are so moved. There are those who have not only showed up every week, but also those who have expressed a desire to do more. And so, moved by the Spirit, the group decided to recite the Rosary this week in a choir-to-choir format, where those standing behind one side of the banner (led by Bud) called out the first halves of the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be, and those on the other side (led by Jim) responded with the latter half.
As this was happening, a man skipped through Fifth Avenue traffic, hailing me down, as if I were a cab. He requested a copy of our program. After a brief review, he looked up at me and said, "Great! How can I get more involved? What's next?" I replied by saying that he was more than welcome to join us and that we would be here for the next two Fridays. He said that he would love to join us, but that he was on his way to do the Stations of the Cross. And so we shook hands a second time and in that moment, two strangers became friends. I have a funny feeling Dennis will join us one of these upcoming weeks.
Moments later, as I rejoiced those praying while holding the stack of programs close to my chest, a woman walking by reached out and squeezed my arm with an equal amount of strength and grace, and said "Thank you." I turned to respond but she was already well past me. I didn't get her name. I couldn't see her face. But with one tender touch and the whisper of two words, two strangers became friends. The clock struck 6:00 and the bells of St. Patrick's ominously rang during the call and response of the Litany of Saints. Our vigil came to an end, but we stood in silence for a few more minutes, absorbing the moment for ourselves, for each other, and for those facing persecution and deportation. Why were we here? For what reason?
A thunderous call remains for us all - as individuals, groups, organizations, and as an institution. For those who desperately need our help, our silence is deafening. We will bear witness to the truth or not. We will do unto others or not. We will welcome the stranger or not. We will stand in solidarity or not. And we must bear full responsibility for our response, and consequently, for their lives.
Week Three (St. Pat's on St. Pat's)
We had a very moving witness at the St. Patrick’s Cathedral this past Friday, on St. Patrick’s Day. The parade was over when we arrived, but many people were still out and supportive of our message to welcome immigrants and refugees. Indeed, it seemed many were grateful for the reminder that Irish Americans are immigrants or decedents of immigrants too, specifically within the New York Archdiocese (where every NYC Cardinal has either emigrated from Ireland or been the son of Irish Immigrants). During our prayer we were thanked by Irish and Irish Americans alike. We received more than a few “thumbs up” from people who looked to be in their twenties, eighties, and every age between. We received a smile from a woman wearing a hijab walking along with her two young children and a round of applause from a couple who said they were from a county “on the list”.
Others were hoping to stop in for a prayer at the Cathedral, only to find the doors had been closed for the day. When one of us was asked if the church was open, he responded: “The Church is here, outside. We are the Church, pray with us.” The people are indeed the church and the people are ready to stand with those in flight and seeking refuge. In this urgent time, will our Cardinal remember his immigrant roots and radically empathize with those in need of safety, security, and stability in our cities and towns? We the people, we the church, stand in solidarity with those fighting for their rights and dignity from the state, Church, and all people of faith. St. Patrick pray with us! Archdiocese, take a stand! We will continue our prayerful witness for the next three Fridays, we welcome you to join. In peace.
On Friday afternoon Paul, Karen, and I boarded the B train with our 40 foot banner and two new signs for clarification. Cardinals and bishops and directors of Catholic non-profits in other dioceses are standing with immigrants facing deportation and encouraging priests to resist ICE. As we ventured onto the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral—a place of worship built with the hands and hearts of immigrants—we brought these additional messages: NY Archdiocese, do more. Defy ICE, and offer sanctuary.
David, Joan, Kevin, Anna, Paul, Martha, Bill, Bud, John, Cathy, Carmen, Sebastian and others prayed with us in the frigid air until their fingers and toes numbed. They embodied, for me, the spirit I long to see in our institutional Church. It was their faithful witness—not any brick and mortar building—that gave structure and stability to the message of Matthew 25.
Karen steadfastly attended to the perimeter of our vigil space, interacting with passersby and inviting interested parties to join us for a decade or two. Jimmy and I led our service of prayer and song. Those holding up the banner—the words of Jesus—preached with their feet the Gospel’s good news. I could not help but feel grateful for the eco-system that was emerging. Each of us offered something simultaneously small and yet essential and our offerings were woven together in the shadow of the Church we hope will radically embrace a Gospel message of interdependent love.
And so… Next week is St. Patrick’s Day on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I can’t imagine a more appropriate message to adorn this building’s entry. May St. Patrick’s radical spirit of inclusion magnify our plea. May our singing inspire cardinals, clerics, and the laity to embrace this welcome and use their bodies and influence to defend our sisters and brothers seeking the most basic human rights and sanctuary.
Midway through the Litany of Saints, somewhere between Sojourner Truth and Edith Stein, the idling buses rolled away and the jackhammers quit. Moments ago our voices were audible but equal to the noise of the street. Now, the machinery fallen away, the human voice hummed and hung in the space in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, making it holy. Caesar Chavez, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day. Sean announced their names and the line of us—20 people holding a banner that read (in Lenten purple letters), “When did we see you a stranger and make you feel welcome?”—called back and to the saints, seeking their assistance. When the last names were sung, Jamie rang the bell we brought with us. One second later, at 6pm, the bells of St. Patrick’s Cathedral responded—a blessing upon all of us there. Each note touched my cheeks, my feet rooted into the sidewalk and I closed my eyes. The presence of God.
Was it a protest? In the weeks leading up to our vigil, there was concern from friends and family about our “tone”. We were absolutely outraged and ashamed of how many people who self-identified as Catholic—individual voters, officials (such as Steve Bannon, Mike Pence and Paul Ryan), and Timothy Cardinal Dolan—were in support of horrific and blatantly racist immigration policies and/or helped elect Donald Trump. It seemed to us that the Catholic Church played a significant role in promulgating anti-immigrant policies. Yet, many around us were confused and offended: “The Catholic Church has always been and is pro-immigrant.” We are praying in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral every week because the Church is supposed to be pro-immigrant. Each week we stand behind Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 (literally) and pray the rosary, (1) asking Mary to give us the wisdom and courage to defy the recent torrent of immigration policies, (2) offering instruction to fellow Catholics who support the ban, the wall, and the aggressive deportation and incarceration of immigrants, and (3) hoping to offer our fearful and suffering brothers and sisters some solace.
We encourage all Catholics in the Archdiocese of New York to speak out against the persecution of immigrants, resist ICE, and offer sanctuary in our sacred spaces.