Ash Wednesday Pilgrimage | LIRS
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Ash Wednesday Pilgrimage

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The following guest post comes from Kathy O’Leary, coordinator for Pax Christi NJ.

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.

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.

“Compassion moves the will to justice.” – Rev. Bryan Massingale

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.  We made more stops along the way at the Grace Community Lutheran Church and Federal Immigration Court Building.

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 harsh and barren desert.

We ended triumphantly 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.

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

Kathy O’Leary is coordinator for Pax Christi NJ, a region of Pax Christi USA representing the international Catholic peace movement in the United States.  She is also a volunteer member of the board of IRATE & First Friends a non-profit organization that upholds the inherent humanity and dignity of all immigrants providing visitors and non legal assistance for immigrants held in detention and working for improved conditions while advocating for the end of arbitrary, mass detention.

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