I spent five hours as a guest of the U.S. Capitol Police last week. It was hot, really hot. And those plastic handcuffs leave bruises.
I was one of 71 Catholics arrested by the U.S. Capitol Police in the rotunda of the Russell Senate building in Washington, D.C., for “crowding, obstructing, or incommoding” while praying the rosary. My prayer was — and is — to end the warehousing of immigrant children in cages — 63,624 of whom have been apprehended by border patrol at the southwestern border between October 2018 and June 2019 and seven of whom have died after being in federal custody since September. More than a dozen Catholic orders and organizations sponsored the event. Seven Catholic bishops sent letters of support.
I’ve been arrested more than 30 times for nonviolent civil disobedience, beginning when I was in high school. It is one way to say “no” to inhuman laws, to show how to build a “‘moral frontier’ in one’s own identity, by openly and publicly challenging authorities who [are] practicing inhuman orders,” as Mexican Gandhian strategist and Catholic Pietro Ameglio puts it.
When laws become so egregious that life and creation are at risk, then the moral imperative is clear: Disobedience in the face of what is inhuman is a personal, religious, and social virtue to increase the good.
We were in the Russell Senate building to pierce the veil of morally isolated political leaders who are caging immigrant children.
We were there because we actually believe in the power of prayer. “The public prayer of Christians,” as activist-theologian Bill Wylie-Kellermann reminds us in Principalities in Particular, “are forever to God not to cameras.” While savvy political organizing and diligent press work is necessary, the purpose of liturgical direct action, like praying the rosary in defiance of a police order, is primarily spiritual.
For Catholics, the rosary has long been a weapon of choice in wrestling with, correcting, and pushing toward the redemption of the powers and principalities. Even the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the 3rd and 4th century used a knotted rope as a prayer aid to recall significant moments in Christ’s life and to beat back the devil.
While a few hundred people encircled the Russell rotunda, our “Hail Marys” and “Our Fathers” echoed down the long corridors of Senate offices. We replaced the traditional scripture of the five Sorrowful Mysteries with stories collected by a group of attorneys who interviewed more than 60 minors at U.S. Border Patrol facilities in El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley in June.
Certain lines from those prayers took on new meanings, such as “blessed is the fruit of thy womb” and “pray for us sinners” and “deliver us from evil.” I held the photo of Jakelin Caal Maquin, a 7-year-old Maya Q’eqchi’ girl from Guatemala who died of a bacterial infection after U.S. Customs and Border Protection took her into custody.
No time in detention is safe for children. Place children instead with members of their families in this country, or with available sponsors, or with community-based case management programs where they can stay until they are able to appear in immigration court.
When the U.S. Capitol Police issued three warnings for us to disperse, most of those gathered stepped back behind the police line, but five stepped forward and laid down in the shape of a cross in the center of the rotunda. A cross of human bodies. Dozens more formed a eucharistic circle around this cross.
Our law-breaking band of Catholic lay people, sisters, and priests was not alone in our liturgical direct action. Earlier in the week, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 85, and nine others were arrested blocking the entrance to Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters in Washington, D.C., as part of a national movement in the Jewish community to shut down immigrant detention camps, particularly those holding minors.
“Pharaoh's attack on children points toward a repeated tactic of tyrants who have planned genocide: Attack the children first,” said Rabbi Waskow. Jewish communities are taking action at ICE offices around the country, declaring “Never again means now.”
On the same day, the Trump administration issued a new policy banning people from seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. According to the text of this irregular rule, individuals entering the United States across the southern border will be regarded as ineligible for asylum if they passed through another country first and did not attempt to seek asylum there. The United Nations’ committee on refugees says this rule “significantly raises the burden of proof on asylum seekers” beyond international standards and “sharply curtails the basic rights and freedoms of those who manage to meet it.” A few days later, the Department of Homeland Security issued another irregular rule with no option for public comment before going into force, that persons in the United States “who have not affirmatively shown, to the satisfaction of an immigration officer, that they have been physically present in the United States continuously for the two-year period …” are eligible for expedited removal and deportation.
Simultaneous with the arrests in the Russell building on Thursday, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) gave a moving testimony from the floor of the Senate reflecting on the prophet Amos, the Good Samaritan in the context of the continuous threat of massive ICE raids across the country.
To promote the Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act, Kaine said, “[The bill] puts us in a position where as we are being directed to be good neighbors, including to people who are hurting, including to people who are suffering, we would be able to look ourselves in the mirror and look the world in the eye and say the United States believes that we are good neighbors and we are behaving in a neighborly way toward people.”
Police vans and holding areas are never comfortable. They are often humiliating and sometimes dangerous. But for Christians, studying the Bible in lock-up is a tradition formed in the early church. For the Catholic Day of Action, I chose a scripture verse from Lamentations to meditate on: “Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the watches; Pour out your heart like water before the face of the Lord: Lift up your hands toward him for the life of your young children, that faint for hunger at the head of every street” (2:19).
We sat for five hours, handcuffed, on metal folding chairs in the noisy Capitol Police’s open garage bay. With us was a 90-year-old Mercy sister and an 85-year-old Franciscan priest, and the sweat rolled off us like “water before the face of the Lord.” We were processed. We were fingerprinted. Most of us resolved our arrest for a misdemeanor criminal offense by paying and forfeiting the $50 fine (“post and forfeit”). No criminal case will be filed against us in court, but we will have an arrest record. And I have a wristband with the name of my arresting officer tucked into my Bible.
These Catholic public actions are part of larger nonviolent movement to increase the visibility of Catholics willing to take more risks to stop the inhuman treatment of migrant children and to end child detention. The direct action last week in the Senate building was part of the first phase. The second phase will include direct action at the border in August. A third phase will include direct action both in D.C. and at the border in September.
Nonviolence strategist Gene Sharp wrote, a closer “examination of the sources of the rulers’ power indicates that they depend intimately upon the obedience and cooperation of the governed.” When we increase the visibility of Christians taking risks, it encourages others to take risks, significantly increasing the pressure on the government who is not delivering positive outcomes for society. Increasing visible risks uses the intangible power of traditional religious values and morality to undermine key sources of power for authority. In the case of challenging family separation and child detention, taking increased risks to say “no” to these policies creates a fertile ground for the conditions to change.
Fr. Joe Nangle, OFM, spoke at the press conference before our public liturgy and arrest calling on millions of Catholics — bishops in particular — to “join this struggle for the soul of America.” After pleading with the gathered media to carry his message to the border, Fr. Nangle then spoke in Spanish: “First, a plea for pardon of you our sisters and brothers. We love you and welcome you to the United States. You have a right to be here. We will continue to struggle toward that day when you will hear the words of God through the Prophet Isaiah: ‘Comfort, comfort my people, your trial is at an end ... I have heard the cry of my people.’”
Last week, I spent five hours as a guest of the Capitol Police. Detained migrant children are spending five weeks or five months in Border Patrol camps. What increased risk will you take to say “no”?