Dateline: Tuesday, September 22, 2015
The Pope is coming to Washington, D.C. and the city is ready.
Here at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where the Holy Father will celebrate mass tomorrow, you can feel the crackle and hum of fevered anticipation. Everyone is busy. The grounds are thick with so many priests and monks and nuns that you wonder if they have been imported just for the occasion. Workers are setting up the fences and the chairs for those who have been relegated to an outside seat. Inside the huge edifice—the largest church in America—the jumbotrons are placed near the altar so even those in the back rows may catch a glimpse of Pope Francis. A multitude of singers are practicing the music they will perform for the Pontiff. They are singing something in Latin—ethereal, beautiful, the perfect papal mood music—and you can hear their voices all the way down the street at the metro station.
Meanwhile, the mothers, daughters, and sisters who make up 100 Women, 100 Miles are also on their way to the Basilica. These immigrant women and activists left the York Immigrant Detention Center in Pennsylvania a week ago. They have been walking ever since, 10 to 15 miles a day. They are coming to deliver a message for the Pope, for the President, for Congress, for the American people and for the world. It’s a message of faith, hope, and justice; it’s an appeal for welcome, dignity and respect for all immigrants.
We are here to join them for the last three miles of their remarkable journey. We wait on the steps of the Basilica as they slowly come into view. There are some stragglers; their banners are drooping and they look bone-weary. But that’s only for a moment. As soon as they hear our cheers, they stand straighter, walk faster, and raise their arms in salutes of victory.
They join hands in a huddled group on the steps of the Basilica, sharing prayers and then singing a few familiar songs—We Shall Overcome in English and Spanish. There are smiles, tears, and lots of hugging. A woman who works for the Basilica comes out in a flutter and demands to know who is in charge. She wants the women to leave. They are disrupting the preparations.
The 100 strong-hearted women aren’t fazed in the slightest. They are focused on each other and the last few precious hours of their pilgrimage. They hoist their banners and start to walk.
“If I am deported or my husband is deported, what will happen to my children?” she asks. “How will they finish their studies? How will they grow up?”
It’s a worry she revisits several times during our conversation. Each person deported, she states, means a family separated. There are many women walking here who are separated from their children, husbands, and parents.
“When I am tired, when I feel I cannot take another step, I remember the mothers who are already separated from their families,” Alejandra says. “And then I walk for them, too.”
We’re walking towards McPherson Square, just a short distance from the White House, where the organizers are planning a candlelight vigil. For most of the day the sky has been bleak and gray, but the sun has finally overpowered the clouds. People cheer the women as they walk by, honk their horns and give the “thumbs-up” sign. It’s a scene that has been repeated throughout their walk; they have rested each evening in rooms provided by churches, and have been fed by generous volunteers.
The 100 women have formed a sisterhood, encouraging and supporting each other as they walk along. There are a few cancer survivors in the group. One woman is walking with a cane. Another saved the shoes she wore crossing the border with her children. She is wearing them now. The women keep walking. They insist on walking..
“It’s beautiful to see the solidarity between generations,” says Samantha, an earnest 23-year old from South Texas. ‘We draw strength from each other.”
Samantha was born in the United States, but as a child worked in the fields with her parents every summer. Presently, she is a part-time domestic worker and a volunteer with the Fuerza del Valle Workers Center in Alton, Texas. She speaks of the exploitation of undocumented domestic workers—wage theft, threats of deportation, sexual harassment, even physical violence—that compelled her to join these women.
“Domestic workers are excluded from protection,” she explains. “They work in the shadows, separated from each other. Even if they have the courage to report wage theft or abuse, there is no one to report to—they have no community or organization to support them.”
Samantha wants to thank the Pope for speaking on behalf of all immigrants. She seeks to elevate his message of compassion to the world.
“We are protected by a bubble of privilege. We don’t see the violence, poverty, and the urgency of life in other places,” she says. “We should be leaders of the world. We should welcome immigrants and take care of our neighbors. We are all people who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
The night before this final walk, the 100 women were at St Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. The parishioners threw them a party—dinner, music, and dancing. They also held a lottery for ten tickets to see the Pope. Everyone here wants to see the Pope, of course, even if it’s from a distance while standing in a vast crowd. Every woman wants to ask Pope Francis for help, to urge him to speak forcefully to Congress, and most of all, to say “thank you.”
“I don’t need to see the Pope,” explains Kim, a woman from Minnesota walking for her undocumented husband. “We see the Pope in each other.”