It was about quarter to five in the morning, and I was watching coffee brew slowly, wondering how it would feel to be arrested in a few hours. My stomach hurt, thinking about it. I stood there, barefoot and alone in the dark kitchen of a Catholic Worker House in Washington DC, where my friends and I were guests, and spent a moment seriously considering stealing the car keys and driving back to Erie.
I had gone to DC with Sister Anne McCarthy and three members of Benedictines for Peace (Breanna Mekuly, Tinamarie Stolz and Sam Miller), to join with hundreds of others for the Catholic Day of Action With Dreamers. It was planned as a day of prayer and demonstrations—including civil disobedience—calling for legislation to protect young people, known as Dreamers, who immigrated to the United States as children without using legal channels. Though these young men and women have been offered amnesty for the past several years through a policy known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) the current government administration has placed hundreds of thousands of them at risk of deportation to countries that they may not even remember.
As a Catholic, as someone who takes seriously the Biblical call to “welcome the foreigner,” I believe that the rights of immigrants are sacred. And the Dreamers and their situation feel especially personal to me. Whenever I think of them, I think of my mother, who, as a ten-year-old, escaped Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship with her family and moved to this country. My mother and grandparents came here legally, but that was hardly her decision. If they had arrived under different circumstances, like the Dreamers, her struggles—translating for her parents, adapting to a new culture, dealing with poverty—would have only been more intense. And she still would have deserved to be here, as they do.
So when I was invited to attend the Day of Action, when I was asked to consider doing civil disobedience and risking arrest for the first time, I felt an immediate conviction to stand with my brothers and sisters. I felt I had to, as Daniel Berrigan said, “offer a modest and consistent NO” to this administration’s devil-may-care cruelty toward them.
That conviction didn’t mean I wasn’t afraid. I was, very much so. I was frightened by the possibility that the police officers would treat us poorly. And I was frightened that my mother, who experienced that brutal military regime, would see a civil disobedience arrest as a foolish, reckless thing to do, and be very hurt or angry. And I was frightened by how frightened I was.
I kept catching myself thinking of something my father used to tell me all the time when I was growing up, whenever I’d gotten myself into yet another clash with a classmate or teacher or priest: “Just back down. Remember, you come from a long line of cowards. ” Was it true? I worried that I was about to be tried and found wanting: that as soon as my courage was really tested, I would quit, purely out of self-centered fear of the consequences. Or—much worse and just as cowardly—that I might fail to be nonviolent.
Pacing around the kitchen while my companions slept, I started to repeat the first prayer I remember ever saying: “Oh, be with me, just be with me, please just be with me.” I was talking to God, of course, and to Mary. And I was also talking to the saints whose stoic faces I’ve memorized in stained glass windows: Therese, Hildegard, Catherine, Joan, Felicity, Perpetua. And I was also talking to the countless others who have been far braver than I needed to be that day: Benedictine sisters, my grandparents, Sophie Scholl, Ida B. Wells, thousands of unnamed refugees and resistors. I was praying that I would feel the “great crowd of witnesses,” throughout the day. That the Dreamers would feel them, too. That we could all join ourselves to that long line of resolute people.
Eventually the sun rose, and all of us Benedictines for Peace were gathered together in the kitchen. I began to feel a little better as we set off for the Mass that preceded the demonstration. Still, so much of the morning was a blur. It’s just little glimpses that I remember.
Like this: Wearing “cloth sandwich boards” that identified us as representatives of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, my group and I anointed ourselves with Brigid’s water, prayed together, and sent a quick email to two of our Benedictine role models, thanking them for empowering us to take a stand for justice, for allowing us to be the faces of the community at this event.
And like this: At the sign of peace, I looked up and gasped when I saw one of my first feminist mentors, the theologian Mary Hunt, coming across the chapel to hug and kiss me.
And like this: We marched down the street to the Capitol building, singing and chanting. One of the chants was “Show me what our families look like/This is what our families look like!” and each time I said it, goosebumps raised themselves across my arms.
And like this: We began to say the rosary, the sorrowful mysteries. The chant of it was so soothing, so familiar; the same there in a crowd of hundreds in an echoing Senate rotunda as it was in my linoleum-tiled 7th grade classroom, or on my grandmother’s porch, or in my parents’ bed after a nightmare. I could feel myself a part of all the generations of people who have said the rosary, and I knew that our prayers for immigration reform were joined with their prayers.
I didn’t hear the police give their warnings. I believe they did— the police officers we dealt with were nothing but conscientious, even friendly—but I couldn’t hear them, even with their bullhorns, over the sound of our praying and singing.
A Sister who was three people to my left was the first of us arrested, and I think I’ll always remember the light shining on her face as she continued to sing with the police zip-tying her hands behind her back. When the police moved on to arrest Sister Anne, who was only two people to my left, I turned to Tinamarie on my right and said, “Anne’s under arrest. Get ready.” It must have only been a matter of seconds or minutes before an officer approached me, but it felt like a very long, slow, quiet time. After days of anxiety, there was a deep sense of peace all through me. I had spent the morning praying, “Please just be with me,” and in that moment I heard the answer I needed: “We are.”
The officer said, “Miss, if you keep praying, you’ll be under arrest. Do you intend to keep praying?”
I said, “Yes, sir, I do.” I had never been more certain of an answer.
He said, “You’re under arrest. Put your hands behind your back,” and I did, my rosary beads slipping through my fingers, onto the marble floor. (Video of the arrest can be found here.) Later, an officer returned the beads to me.
I was surprised by how good our spirits were, on the bus where they transported us, and even for the hours we sat in the processing center. The twenty or so of us who were in my van just sang and sang and sang on the drive to be processed, mostly hymns and Civil Rights songs. And once we got to the center and had our hands cuffed in front of us rather than behind, we were all the more comfortable, chatting with each other and with another group of people who were under arrest, who had come from after a different action centered on immigration. We paid our bail, we got fingerprinted, and eventually we were each individually released.
On the sidewalk outside the jail, I decided to make the phone call I'd been dreading: the call to break the news to my mother, who I was sure would disapprove. That brought the biggest surprise of the day. At first she asked me why we had to break the law, why we couldn’t have just stopped when we were told to. She asked me sarcastically if I planned to make a habit of getting arrested. But then she said, “Did anyone from the media interview you?”
“No,” I said.
“Well, why not?” she said, just like a mother would. “You’re smart. You’re brave. You explain things well. They should be listening to you." She paused. I heard her swallow hard. "It’s a good cause. I’m very proud of you,” she said. Naturally, I cried.
It’s such a strange thing. When I moved last year, I thought I was leaving my family four hundred miles east, but now I’m starting to see that family is more central to my life than ever. There are the values and stories my parents and grandparents gave me, which will constantly need to be re-evaluated and re-tested as I come into adulthood. There are the relationships within the family that continue to grow and shift as we all change and mature and challenge one other. There are millions of people incarcerated in this country who should be treated with the kindness and dignity that we received from law enforcement, who deserve our support and our advocacy, but who are often forgotten and abused, whose families suffer too in this unjust system. There are the thousands of immigrant families that need defending in the U.S., who will be torn apart by legislators unless we all continue to speak and pray and call our senators and protest. And there are women and men who have come into my life in recent years and shown me other ways of being family, offering me encouragement and advice and the perfect love that drives out fear.
Let’s remember what it means to be brothers and sisters in Christ. Let’s keep fighting for real family values, together.
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A blog by Jacqueline Small
What happens when a woman in her mid-twenties begins to work, pray, and share life with a community of Benedictine sisters? What questions arise and what wisdom emerges? This blog will offer peeks into one young seeker’s experiences. Jacqueline is a staff member of Monasteries of the Heart and an oblate of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. She holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University.