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A report from the 25th annual Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace, an event organized each Holy Week since 1987 by former Catholic missionary Gail Phares

What would Jesus do on Palm Sunday? 

Children protesting with the Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace sing "Ain't Gonna Study War No More" beneath a warplane at Palm Sunday's military air show at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro.

Photo by David Biesack

Children protesting with the Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace sing "Ain't Gonna Study War No More" beneath a warplane at Palm Sunday's military air show at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro.

Our shopping trips for Holy Week were a bit unusual—but they matched our plans perfectly.

Our first plan was to surround Cary's Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) facility with yellow crime-scene tape as part of a drama to expose ICE's harsh treatment of undocumented people. So it was off to Lawman's, a supply store for gun aficionados, just two miles from my Garner home. Hidden behind a Christian café, Lawman's features every kind of gun imaginable, handcuffs, mace, riot gear and even a keychain-size brass medallion with the image of St. Michael the Archangel, the patron saint of law enforcement. A box containing a 1,000-foot roll of plastic "barricade tape" went for $10.

Earlier in the week I had bought a foot-long piece of chain for use in another drama, this one at the Alamance County Detention Center in Graham, where the community has been most unwelcoming to the undocumented. There I played an ICE agent, and I used the chain to shackle the wrists of the Statute of Liberty, played by Pittsboro activist Audrey Schwankl.

I made yet another trip to a thrift store to find black clothing for my specter-of-death outfit for the "Wings Over Wayne" Palm Sunday air show at Goldsboro's Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

So went the preparations for the 25th edition of the Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace, an event organized each Holy Week since 1987 by former Catholic missionary Gail Phares. With the U.S. simultaneously engaged in three wars, the small U.S. peace movement is perhaps burned out after almost 10 years of resistance ... except for Phares. Since I started working with Phares in the early 1980s, I have considered her the state's best organizer. The co-founder of Witness for Peace, Gail has led more than 40 delegations of North Americans on often dangerous trips throughout Latin America to expose the harsh realities of U.S. policy. My daughters, Bernadette and Moira, both went on WFP teen delegations to Nicaragua.

Here at home, Phares organizes the pilgrimage each year to address many social issues in the context of one witness. This year's pilgrimage kicked off on Palm Sunday in Goldsboro with the Rev. William Barber and several members of his Greenleaf Christian Church joining the pilgrims in a large prayer circle in the church parking lot. Barber, state NAACP president, gave us a send-off blessing. Always prophetic, Barber reminded us why Jesus was killed. "When Jesus preached his first sermon in Nazareth, what got him in trouble wasn't when he talked about God," Barber said. "What got him in trouble was when he talked about God and politics. When he dared to say, 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.' And in that particular text, poor is a Greek word called ptochos and it literally means 'those who have been made poor by the violence of society.'"

At nearby Seymour Johnson, Palm Sunday's air show drew more than 100,000 gawkers to ooh and aah at an arsenal responsible for the deaths of thousands of people since Sept. 11, 2001.

Our children began the morning's action. Standing side-by-side, the kids wore T-shirts that together spelled "NO WAR." I was proud of the children for taking such courageous action in the midst of this pro-war extravaganza. As the children began singing "Ain't Gonna Study War No More," F-15Es made earsplitting low passes to drop bombs in a nearby field, fireballs billowing skyward. Had this been a real war, how many people would those bombs have killed? No one seemed to care as the crowds cheered each blast.

For our next act, I donned my specter-of-death costume, complete with a skeleton mask, stepped out from under a B-1 bomber and began to order everyone to bow down in adoration of the huge B-1. Three others, Steve Woolford of the Silk Hope Catholic Worker, Beth Brockman of Durham and Brian Hynes of Bronx, N.Y., obediently dropped to their knees to worship the winged god. In what seemed like a few seconds, I found myself trying to dodge the grasp of a guy in a military uniform who soon was able to unmask me and escort me away from the B-1. Most of the reactions of people at the air show were angry, but I felt our presence there broke the unanimity of support for a sorry display of Palm Sunday idolatry.

On Monday, we marched to the Alamance County Jail and thence to the Guilford County Sheriff's Department to deliver a letter to Sheriff B.J. Barnes. The Rev. Mark Sills, executive director of FaithAction International House in Greensboro, says that Barnes plans to use the INS Secure Communities program, which runs immigration background checks on people who encounter the police, to bankroll the new jail.

"He has evidently worked out a deal with the feds that they will send people here and pay him to house them," Sills said. Our letter asked Sheriff Barnes not to exploit the undocumented in this way. Sills says his group opposes "any profit-making off of human bodies."

The pilgrimage made a stop in Winston-Salem, where we joined with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee calling on the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company to negotiate so tobacco workers will have better conditions and wages.

Thursday's stop at Cary's ICE facility included a traditional Holy Thursday foot-washing service led by the Rev. Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship. With help from pilgrims Joseph Wolyniak and Duane Adkinson, we quickly roped off the ICE facility with crime-scene tape and held our service in front of the gate where immigrants are brought in shackled and handcuffed.

Holy Thursday evening, we surprised Gail Phares with a 25th-anniversary party at Carrboro's El Centro Hispano. As part of the evening panel, several young "undocumented and unafraid" Latinos, some of whom have been arrested for protesting the mistreatment of the undocumented, spoke out as part of the newly emerging "undocumented youth movement."

On Good Friday, we walked from Garner to the state Capitol in cool, cloudy weather. We began at the N.C. Correctional Center for Women, which holds 1,300 prisoners, most of whom are mothers. On a patch of grass along the prison perimeter, the Rev. Sarah Jobe, a part-time chaplain in Raleigh Correctional Institution for Women, a minimum security prison next door, told us about the women she cares for there. She said that most women in prison have experienced ongoing sexual trauma. Most are poor and "most long-termers are here for murdering abusive spouses." She said, "It is a crime that in our society we don't take time to help these women, but we instead cause them further damage by separating them from their children and their families, and I firmly believe that that separation then just perpetuates these cycles of violence to another generation of children." Now, she says, the North Carolina General Assembly is preparing to cut funding for prison chaplains, further undercutting the prisoners they serve.

To end the pilgrimage, more than 100 of the faithful braved an afternoon cold rain at the Capitol for the Way of the Cross service. Prayers called for an end to war, discrimination and injustice, themes Phares has promoted for 25 years. She said she plans to be back in 2012.

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