BY ELI MCCARTHY | September 16, 2019
Editor’s note: Eli McCarthy was a national organizer for the Newark, NJ Catholic Day of Action for Immigrant Children, held on Wednesday, September 4, 2019. More than 50 Catholic leaders risked arrest that day, calling attention to the human rights issues surrounding immigrant child detention in the U.S.
Wow! We expected maybe a couple hundred could make it in the middle of the week just after the school year started, BUT we had 400-500 people! It was a beautiful sight to be with so many Catholics, and other Christians, filling and overflowing the St. Mary’s Newark Abbey of the Benedictines and processing through the city to the ICE office within the Federal building. We appreciated the collaboration, work, and long-time efforts of the local activists.
The presence of Cardinal Joseph Tobin, C.Ss.R., emboldened the faithful to turn out and to take increasing strategic risks during phase two of the national campaign to end child detention. The courage of Cardinal Tobin to not only be present and to speak out, but to stand on the street and directly bless those fifty-plus Catholics willing to risk arrest was nothing less than remarkable and grace-filled. Thank you, Cardinal Tobin!
Our campaign’s theory of change turns on galvanizing more Catholic engagement but also increasing Catholics to take more strategic risks to impact the key sources of power as discussed in my previous ISN reflection: “Jesus Enters into Jerusalem.” With our partners’ risk-taking, such as the Jewish Never Again campaign, and since our Catholic action in July, over 2,500 children have been released from detention.
A key part of the risk-taking in Newark was the fifty plus people who made the deep discernment and spiritual decision to risk arrest. We again used the transformative symbol of the cross by making the visible shape with our bodies. Sr. Mary Kay, who laid as the end of the cross, described how she clung to the person above her, feeling a transformative connection. Others kneeled out of sacred reverence as we read stories of the children in detention and prayed the Hail Mary. Some of us experienced the discomforts of heat and uncertainty as we risked arrest for over an hour. Yet, there were so many of us that we overwhelmed the Newark police department and they did not have the capacity to handle our creative nonviolent power. Ultimately, after an hour plus we agreed to move, as six of us were detained. With Jesus, we created something surprising as nonviolence often does. We created a nonviolent dynamic that surpassed both legal and armed enforcement boundaries. Why did this happen? What were the key elements unleashing such power?
In Newark, perhaps some of these were: 1) prayer and commitment to nonviolence; 2) presence and blessing of notable leadership from a religious institution with significant reach and resources; 3) significant numbers of those willing to risk arrest; 4) a recognizable, transformative symbol; 5) a large gathering of supporters; and 6) significant media presence.
There are a variety of types of risks that might be strategic. As we move forward in this campaign to end child detention with or without family, I sense a key task for us is to answer this question: How can we harness such nonviolent power to diminish some key sources of power enabling this injustice, and perhaps get us closer to liberating more children and families from detention?
We might recall lessons from other nonviolent movements. For example, during Gandhi’s movement that overcame the ruthless colonial British empire in India there were key moments when the nonviolent resistance gathered so much energy and risk-taking that they literally overwhelmed the armed authorities, at times even “filling the jails.” Legal authorities, even when armed, are often unable to maintain their injustice as the people increasingly and strategically refuse to cooperate. What normally appears to be untouchable legal boundaries begins to be surpassed, and the power of armed threat by enforcement authorities begins to be diminished. We started to taste this a bit in Newark.
Our next national convergence is at the border in El Paso, TX with a teach-in from October 11-13 and a nonviolent direct action on October 12th. Bishop Seitz will be participating in the convergence. We hope you will join us, and also consider local actions of strategic risk-taking!
Eli McCarthy, Ph.D., teaches at Georgetown University in justice and peace studies and serves as the director of justice and peace for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, which is the national network of Catholic men religious leaders.