Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Children of Abraham & My Lenten Journey

It is well known that last year, I began a new ritual on Ash Wednesday. I walk over 10 miles from the footbridge to Ellis Island in Liberty State Park to the gates of the Elizabeth Detention Center just outside Newark Airport in Elizabeth. When we first began to plan this event, I could easily comprehend the physical aspects of the journey, but I had no idea just how much of a spiritual journey I would be embarking on.

When we were first planning the event last year we were concerned how houses of worship which were not Christian would react to being asked to participate in a Christian feast day. We were surprised to learn that this was not a problem, particularly for the Islamic Center and Al-Ghazaly School. They were delighted that we wanted to devote part of our observance of one of our holy days to a visit to their school. Last year we heard a reading from the Koran that explained our shared belief in welcoming immigrants. This year we heard a reading that talked about the equality of all people.

We were trying to give a face and a name to the immigrants who are forced into hiding and whose human dignity is disrespected by our laws and the attitudes of our society. What we achieved, in my estimation, was something much greater, the beginning of an interfaith cooperation and understanding.

The Catholic Church teaches that Muslims are to be embraced as fellow brothers and sisters of Abraham. That teaching came alive for me last Wednesday as I drew closer to people I had learned to believe were so very different from me. Standing in the cafeteria of the Al-Ghazaly school there was no denying that we were all God’s children.

I just read an article that concluded that the key to immigration reform was interfaith understanding. Perhaps that is so and perhaps that is also the key to many of the other challenges in our society. What I do know is that learning about another religion and being welcomed so warmly by someone from another faith tradition has brought me closer to my own Catholic faith starting my Lenten journey.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Ash Wednesday Pilgrimage -A Transformative Experience

About the middle of February, I found myself looking forward to Ash Wednesday. I had never experienced this before. My Catholic upbringing had conditioned me to dread the day that signaled the beginning of what I had come to regard as 40 days of repentance and self denial. But this Ash Wednesday would be the second time that I would be joining people of faith from all over New Jersey and New York City in front of the footbridge to Ellis Island to walk nearly 12 miles alongside recent immigrants and in solidarity with the suffering of our brothers and sisters who come to our country fleeing persecution, the aftermath of natural disasters, armed conflict or extreme poverty.

This year the pilgrimage marked the beginning of a statewide Lenten Campaign to “Recognize the Human Value of Immigrants” called “Lament, Compassion, Solidarity & Conversion”. The campaign was intended to Lament our country’s current immigration policy, show Compassion for the suffering of immigrants, act in Solidarity with immigrants and pray for a Conversion of hearts so that comprehensive, humane immigration reform can be enacted.

About 10:30 am, after a short prayer service about 50 of us from varied faith traditions began walking. We chanted “we believe in justice” in English and Spanish as we walked through the streets of Jersey City stopping at Assumption/All Saint’s RC Church for a bilingual prayer service and the Islamic Center and Al-Ghazaly School where we listened to a reading from the Koran that spoke of the equality of all people.

At our next stop, the Essex County Correctional Facility, that currently holds at least 500 immigrant detainees with plans to soon expand to as many as 2700 more, we were joined by two bus loads of high school students from Mother Seton Regional High School and Roselle Catholic who would finish the remaining 9 plus miles. We made more stops along the way at the Grace Community Lutheran Church, Federal Immigration Court Building and the new ICE office on Frelinghuysen Avenue.

Along the journey I visited with old friends and made some new ones. I met a high school student and a US citizen who had recently suffered the separation of her father as he was deported to Egypt and whose mother is awaiting the same fate. I also met a man from Cameroon who had spent time in immigration detention despite being a legal resident.

Toward the end of the day, as our joints and muscles all began to ache, one of my fellow pilgrims and I discussed how we were getting a very small glimpse into the many miles that refugees and immigrants have to walk whilst fleeing their homelands like the “lost boys” of Sudan or the Mexican, Central and South American immigrants who put their lives in the hands of the coyotes as they cross the desert.

We ended triumphantly shortly after 6:00 pm at the IRATE & First Friends 13th annual Ash Wednesday vigil at the Elizabeth Detention Center, where we were greeted by over 100 other vigil goers and the NYC Catholic Worker Band.

Though our walk is over the journey continues. I invite you to join us and other people of all faith traditions who will gather at their local house of worship or elsewhere in their home community throughout the coming weeks of Lent to pray that this Lenten season we will all recognize the humanity of our brothers and sisters who are immigrants and that our society’s collective will be moved to justice.

For me, Ash Wednesday has been forever changed from the beginning of 40 days of atoning for personal sin to the beginning of a process of renewal a time of rebuilding our society to reflect the love of Jesus and justice of the Gospel. I will now look forward to Lent as a time of compassion and mercy; an opportunity to build relationships and community through acts of solidarity and understanding with the promise of rebirth that awaits us as we celebrate the resurrection on Easter Sunday.

The Lenten Campaign to “Recognize the Human Value of Immigrants” will culminate in a Migrants Way of the Cross beginning at 12:00 noon in Newark in front of the Hall of Records on April 22nd (Good Friday). All are welcome to attend.

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