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Prayer service promotes solidarity, raises awareness for immigrants

| Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Student Coalition for Immigration Advocacy, or SCIA, hosted a prayer vigil Tuesday afternoon as the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that will decide the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

DACA allows people illegally brought to the United States as children to remain in the country for two years at a time on a renewable basis. The Supreme Court will determine whether or not President Donald Trump’s move to end the program in 2017 is constitutional.

SCIA president María Sierra Cáceres described the vigil as an opportunity for the campus community to show solidarity and for DACA and undocumented students to reflect and see they are supported. After the 2016 election, Sierra Cáceres said, SCIA shifted its focus from education about the issue to promoting dialogue and creating a community of trust on campus.

“We needed to switch gears and say, ‘How can we provide events that bridge … such a polarizing issue, how can we get people to come to our events and talk about this?’ and then just creating safe spaces [for dialogue] as well,” Sierra Cáceres said.

The vigil began with a prayer led by SCIA members that emphasized the Christian values inherent in welcoming migrants, from generosity to protecting the vulnerable and recognizing their humanity. The vigil continued with a reading from Malachi that again emphasized the duty of hospitality toward foreigners and the vulnerable. 

Fr. Steve Newton, a campus minister at Saint Mary’s, spoke of his experience at the Catholic Day of Prayer for children detained at the southern border this summer in Washington, D.C., where he was arrested alongside 69 others for protesting in a congressional office building.

“The most exciting thing that happened to me this summer, and the most meaningful, was I got arrested,” Newton said. “It was great.”

Soon after being elected to the leadership team of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests, Newton drove to Washington, D.C. to participate in the demonstration. The day began with a prayer service of about 300 people outside the Russell Senate Office Building, 70 of whom then moved into the rotunda of the building. 

“Five at a time lay down in the rotunda in the form of a cross,” Newton said. “The idea was that as they were arrested, then five others would take their place, but we never got that far because they arrested us very quickly. The ratio of Capitol police to individual was one-to-one.”

Newton and his fellow demonstrators were handcuffed and driven to a holding area, where they received minor misdemeanors on their record. As each person finished the process and left the building, Newton said, the remainder cheered.

“It was a great sense of community,” Newton said. “It was a wonderful group of people who were committed to trying to change what’s going on at the border. It was a symbolic act more than anything else; it didn’t really threaten us in any way.”

Newton reiterated that welcoming and protecting are Christian duties and denounced the negative rhetoric around immigration as destructive. He praised the recent election of Archbishop José H. Gómez to the presidency of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and his prioritization of immigration issues.

“They are not, you are not criminals, you are not rapists or troublemakers,” Newton said. “For the Church to take immigration on as the primary issue of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is so consistent with everything that Jesus had to preach about making all one, that we are all one body and one blood, that there are no differences whether we’re male or female, Greek or Roman, Catholic or areligious, whatever we might be, we are one in one body and one blood and we are obligated to welcome the stranger. … Whatever we do affects the body of Christ. And if we don’t welcome the stranger we are destroying the body of Christ.”

Newton pointed to the press coverage of the Catholic Day of Prayer as evidence of the power of raising awareness and called on students not to allow an issue that affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people to slip into the background. Newton reminded attendees of the importance of diversity to the American identity.

“The notion of keeping America for Americans as defined by the alt right will destroy this country,” Newton said. “It will destroy us as a people. It will destroy us as people of faith if we don’t respond as strongly as we can with whatever means we have.” 

Newton ended his sermon urging attendees to take action by calling senators, having honest conversations and praying in solidarity. Students held lit candles through the rest of the prayers and a psalm that shared Newton’s emphasis on the power of truth and love to create change.

“There’s so much that people don’t know and they react out of fear and ignorance,” Newton said. “Fear and ignorance cannot remain our trademark. Courage, hope, and of course, above all things, love.”

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