I was arrested protesting Trump’s border policies. The Gospel calls us to do more.

Catholic leaders and advocates protest the Trump administration’s handling of detained immigrant children during a “Day of Action” on July 18 in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)Catholic leaders and advocates protest the Trump administration’s handling of detained immigrant children during a “Day of Action” on July 18 in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

We prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries as 70 of us were arrested at the Russell Senate Office Building last Thursday for protesting the detention of immigrant children at the border. The decisions that allow their detention, their being torn from families and left in crowded facilities without access to a shower, are indeed a sorrowful mystery. But what I saw as my hands were locked tightly into wasted-plastic zip-tie handcuffs was a Luminous Mystery.

As I stood in the building’s rotunda with lights streaming from high windows and saw rows of Catholics around me and above on a balcony, I felt the presence of the Communion of Saints. It was not unlike sitting in church, where layers of saints and angels are depicted around us. We stood in a threshold, a liminal space where the demands of the Gospel were felt and where the vast difference between the reign of God and the reign of principalities was clear.


What I saw as my hands were locked tightly into wasted-plastic zip-tie handcuffs was a Luminous Mystery.

Across the rotunda was a young Dominican sister dressed in white. Next to her, an old Franciscan Friar in brown. Connecting us were many others: sisters, laypeople, priests, young and old, black and white. They were praying, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death,” as I was told, “You are under arrest.”

“So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God,” St. Paul wrote the Corinthians.

The author, at far right, is arrested with members of the D.C. Catholic Worker House in the Russell Senate Office Building. Demonstrators wore placards with pictures of children who have died in U.S. detention. (Ignatian Solidarity Network)

I caught a glimpse of such ambassadoring as I sat next to Kathy Boylan, from the D.C. Catholic Worker, while we were processed by the U.S. Capitol Police. “We need a contact person,” she was told. “All of my ‘contact people’ are in here with me,” she replied. She lives in a house with other Christians who were called to bring their bodies to the diplomacy table between heaven and earth. They see little room for compromise, think nary of success, but are hellbent on fidelity. They try as they can to implore the world to join them in “putting off the old ways” and “putting on Christ.”

Putting off the old ways and imploring reconciliation does not always require that one be arrested. It does require something dramatically different than what the world offers. The witness of people like Kathy, who lives in voluntary poverty and was quick to tell me all the ways I can fight nuclear proliferation, abortion, white nationalism and war, taught me once again that the Christian life asks a lot.

We are called to stand in the threshold between the church and the world and expose policies for which Christian consent is impossible.

This is why Catholics have always been engaged in such acts of resistance: to illuminate the incompatibility between the Gospel and tragedies like those Kathy encouraged me to oppose. We have also, it should be noted, been guilty of supporting such things.

I am under no illusion that being arrested while praying the rosary in an air-conditioned building in Washington will free immigrant children from detention. It should not receive more attention than the hundreds of Catholics at the border providing direct service to migrants fleeing violence. I am, however, under the illusion—or, rather, illumination—that we are called to stand in the threshold between the church and the world and expose policies for which Christian consent is impossible.

The action we took in Washington was a symbolic one. Nevertheless, it was sincere resistance to a state that enforces such horrific treatment of children. I chose to be arrested because what is being done to children in this country, born and unborn, is suffocating the soul of the Body of Christ. We placed our bodies in the rub between the Gospel and the state to remind ourselves that we will not blend in or be identified with these practices, that something else is demanded from us.

The fantasy that the Gospel is business as usual

I cheat the Gospel everyday. I fail to really love my enemies, fail to give from my poverty and not my surplus, fail to practice hospitality or take the lowest place, fail to love others as myself, fail to love God with my whole heart.

It can be easy for us Americans to live in the fantasy that the Gospel means convenience, business as usual. But where it concerns eternity, the Gospel means conversion, inconvenience; it means business not as usual. It means a new life marked by reckless love; it means mercy.

I chose to be arrested because what is being done to children in this country, born and unborn, is suffocating the soul of the Body of Christ.

Living up to that is hard. It can seem irrational to expect such conversion in ourselves and from our communities. Dorothy Day wrote, “I know it seems foolish to try to be so Christlike—but God says we can.”

Is it foolish to ask the United States to try to be Christlike?

In a letter to young Jesuits written on the feast of St. Ignatius in 1971, Father Daniel Berrigan wrote, “You know too that the old comfortable arrangements between church and state are helpless to generate newness…. The peace of Christ, it goes without saying, is not won by such complicity. That way of peace is something else; necessarily a humiliated via crucis today—no less than in the year of our Lord.”

After one set of handcuffs was removed from my wrists, and every part of me had been patted down by some officer searching for who knows what, I was brought to another line for a new set of handcuffs. Behind me came strolling a short, 80-something Dominican sister in a T-shirt that read, “Be Peace.” She smiled, saying, “Billy, it does give you some small sense of how Jesus was treated, humiliated.” She spoke not with anger or sorrow but with gratitude. She then told me of once reading the Acts of the Apostles all through the night in a jail with feces and bugs covering the floor. She was in the slammer for protesting nuclear weapons.

She told a group of us later that evening: In every age, God sends us opportunities to live the Gospel and to grow in holiness.

The introit to an early morning prayer with her and a few other Dominicans, Franciscans and other holy laypeople before last week’s action was: “We adore you Most Holy Lord Jesus Christ, here and in churches throughout the world, and we praise you because by your cross you have redeemed the world.”

This continues to be my prayer: That Jesus be praised and that in the form of immigrant children at the southern border, he be released from detention into the custody of families or shelters with adequate supplies and conditions suitable to the dignity of sanctity.

Christ gave us a luminous mystery that does not offer security but salvation. It will arrest us in our comfort and complicity. His is a mystery that offers a new framework of reality where power is found in weakness, triumph seen in service and primacy grasped in surrender. As such, he decided to be detained in our bodies as bread.

So Dan Berrigan wrote:

Why do you stand? they were asked, and

Why do you walk?

Because of the children, they said, and

Because of the heart, and

Because of the bread.


The cause

Is the heart’s beat

And the children born

And the risen bread.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
John Butler
1 year 2 months ago

Wonderful article ,but please don’t put the people in the awful position of protecting the nation’ s capital ( and the people who work and visit) as the bad guys.
The true culprits in this crime are the Congress that refuse to develop a comprehensive plan for control of our borders.While the article itself shows what a true Christian should feel towards those poor people who ( for the most part) only want to lead a better life, we must realize that our country cannot be the salvation of the world.
No matter how you feel, scenes such as a father and daughter drowned together must touch your heart.

Dale Athlon
1 year 2 months ago

We have a legal immigration system. Anything illegal is against the teachings of Jesus. Dishonesty is never right.

Arline Saiki
1 year 2 months ago

The reason for the abysmal condition at the border is the huge influx of migrants. 33% more, just in May https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/05/politics/southern-border-migrants/index.html. No country can sustain this kind of invasion. https://www.foxnews.com/politics/obama-dhs-chief-blasts-dems-open-borders-push-warns-migration-would-explode
Catholics from the beginning, went to the countries of the oppressed to help them there, as the Knights of Columbus are doing in Syria.
The suffering here is caused by those who encourage the immigrants to come here in the first place, despite the danger, and despite the fact that there are consequences to braking the law of any country.

JR Cosgrove
1 year 2 months ago

Mr. Clarke published an article yesterday on the increase in border crossing attempts. It was immediately taken down. Maybe it will be reposted soon. It showed the marked increase.

Christopher Lochner
1 year 2 months ago

The best response which needs to be posted here is the oldest: "1Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
2"Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
The Lord's Prayer
5"And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
7"And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9Pray then like this:
"Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread,
12 and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
16"And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

Rick Malloy, S.J.
1 year 2 months ago

Billy, you are living the mission of the Society of Jesus. Keep it up!
"We recognize, along with many others, that without faith, without the eye of love, the human world seems too evil for God to be good, for a good God to exist. But faith recognizes that God is acting through Christ's love and the power of the Holy Spirit, to destroy the structures of sin which afflict the bodies and hearts of his children. Our Jesuit mission touches something fundamental in the human heart: the desire to find God in a world scarred by sin, and then to live the Gospel in all its implications (General Congregation 34 #36).
This faith in God is inescapably social in its implications, because it is directed towards how people relate to one another and how society should be ordered. ... When a society has no moral and spiritual basis, the result is conflicting ideologies of hatreds which provoke nationalistic, racial, economic and sexual violence. This in turn multiplies the abuses that breed resentments and conflict. ... Society then falls prey to the powerful and manipulative (General Congregation 34 #37).
But a faith that looks to the Kingdom generates communities which counter social conflict and disintegration. From faith comes the justice willed by God. ...religious faith, as the inspiration of the human and social good found in God's Kingdom, that alone can take the human family beyond decline and destructive conflict (GC 34 #37).
Justice can truly flourish only when it involves the transformation of cultures, since the roots of injustice are imbedded in cultural attitudes as well as in economic structures (GC 34 #42).
In Jesus Christ, we can accept the magnitude of this challenge (GC 34 D1, #9)"

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 year 1 month ago

Father Malloy
I believe The General Congregation is the governing law of the Society....you and “Billy” chose to join the Society and are so bound by its theories and it’s exegeses. You public lengthy discourse on these pages with Billy seems to be meant to imply and suggests the rest of us are sinners if we do not follow the admonitions of the General Congregation as well.

J Jones
1 year 1 month ago

Or, Stuart, perhaps he sees a young man being maligned for a passionate telling in the first days, of an experience motivated and informed by his effort to live his calling, by his understanding of his calling? Perhaps Fr Malloy is saying "brother, you are not alone; I see this act a manifestation of our shared rule of life". Why is this thread filled with so many Catholic men insisting this young man's telling of his experience and his understanding of God's message (he uses "I" and "we", never "you" or "they") - and now another man's kind and supportive and fraternal response - is intended to shame? Why must Fr Malloy intend to shame YOU, Stuart, by speaking encouragingly and fraternally with this young man? What is going on inside all of you that you can't understand that we were just given the gift of seeing a young man's dive into a way of serving God, a way of being in the world with which he is falling in love?

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 year 1 month ago

J. Jones
If you correctly described Father Malloy’s intent then he should probably just have picked up the phone and called William. It would seem a more appropriate form of fraternal support than a public recitation of the guidance of the General Congregation. I simply do not believe that the purpose of the publication of this article and Father Malloy’s supportive recitation is other to promote and preach the active involvement of others in this form of protest......and more pointedly that to fail to do so is deficient.

J Jones
1 year 1 month ago

Okay, Stuart. You guys really are letting this man's witness get to you.

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 year 1 month ago

There is a very real difference between “silent witness” and the “witness “ displayed by this article and Father Malloy’s recitation of The General Congregation. I am all in favor of the former while the latter is frequently a matter of tone and purpose. I referenced not the fact of William’s witness but the attributes displayed in the article and the comments referencing the General Congregation.
As a Jesuit product I fully recognize the transformation of the Jesuit’s “Men for Christ” to “Men for Others”......

J Jones
1 year 1 month ago

Stuart, writing about acts of peaceful civil disobedience - and the community built, the new insights developed, the prayers deepened - is a commonplace coda. And this fellow, after all, is in formation to be a priest and to minister through writing. A "spiritual letter home" hardly seems surprising and, for many, that "letter home" is PART of the action, part of the witness and it is often very much a part of what others ask for: tell me what you experienced, your prayers, who joined you, your new understandings, where is this taking you now, what do you think we as a faith community can learn from this action? I think Billy did it beautifully, and it is a type of writing that is not at all new under the Catholic sun.

Stuart, it is great you "fully recognize the transformation of the Jesuit 'Men for Christ' to 'Men for Others'". How is that relevant to your critique? (I, for one, did not go to Jesuit schools and I don't know much about their formation or intra-community life; thus, I was very interested in what I learned as a byproduct of Fr Malloy's decision to post a fraternal message to Billy here.)

I sincerely am puzzled by all the umbrage about this really very brief bit of spiritual writing and, from you, umbrage that another Jesuit metaphorically planted his feet on the Rotunda tiles next to the author's (and even umbrage that he and others refer to him as "Billy", quotes yours).

Peace, Stuart.

Billy, keep up the work of being present and of sharing what you learn and how you grow and who you meet in the process. I, for one, want to read more.

Rick Malloy, S.J.
1 year 1 month ago

Hi Stuart. You infer from my "lengthy discourse" that somehow I imply you or others are sinners. The judgment about anyone's sinfulness is way above my pay grade. Your or anyone else's state of grace is not for me to assess or judge (Matt 7:1). All I'm arguing is that Billy's actions are in line with the spirit and guidelines of recent General Congregations of the Society of Jesus. If I could have been in Washington that day, I'd hope to have joined him in the protest.

JR Cosgrove
1 year 2 months ago

A little over 200 years ago about 98% of the world lived in abject poverty afraid to protest their bleak life or else it might become shorter. Now the people of Central America live several levels above that state of existence. Are they better off? Yes, but they see a lot of the world several levels above their existence in material terms and in safety. They all cannot attain this level of material goods so what is to be done? That is the question none of these demonstrators will answer. Protesting so a few get better treatment does nothing to help the hundreds of millions left behind. So why protest?

JR Cosgrove
1 year 2 months ago

The Gospels say little about how to get people out of poverty. So why invoke it? The Gospels tell people how to get to heaven. Have the protesters lost sight of that.

J Jones
1 year 2 months ago

Amazing thing about Christianity: it encourages multitasking.

JR Cosgrove
1 year 1 month ago

These demonstrations and the multitude of articles on the America site are accusations of immoral behavior by others. And many of these accusations may be made against better people than they are and based on unsubstantiated feelings and not facts. If that is true, what does it say about the demonstrators and the writers on the America site?

J Jones
1 year 1 month ago

J Cosgrove, do you come to a religious website expecting NOT to read discussions in which the world is seen and discussed through a lens of morality? I am really curious about these responses. Women are expected to accept discussions of their personal decisions about reproductive choices as moral events. And, in my experience, the vast majority of us agree: reproductive decision-making IS a moral event. The conflict is in differences in judgment about what is and isn't moral in that context. My memory of your posts is that you and I have very different ways of formulating, assessing and answering that moral question. Nonetheless, I do not disagree that it is a question of morality AND I accept as reality that US law on this topic is driven by individual and collective articulations of moral assessments. Those articulations, by persons who agree with you, have been articulated for decades primarily through protests and witnessing in public settings and in publications. Those articulations almost always involves a moral judgment. Again, I don't know ANY women at any point on the continuum who disagree that this is a moral issue.

Why is this different?
Why is this so upsetting?

I sincerely do not understand all of this umbrage.

Disagree. Reject his position. Say your moral evaluation differs.

Why all the insistence that this man (a priest or brother in formation, after all) is out of line for describing and explaining his experience of Christian witness, a witnrss which was informed and motivated by his Gospel-driven assessment of the facts?

Is it as simple as this: it is uncomfortable and unsettling and challenging to find oneself in a moral disagreement with your faith community and denominational leaders on one of the most pressing and complex moral issues of our time?

It is for me where I disagree with the Church. Sometimes that experience of being "disturbed" leads me to a new moral assessment of the facts, sometimes not. I am rarely happy about it when I realize that "the opposition" is on to something but admitting that is part of being morally and intellevtually honest, I think. And I understand and believe that moral engagement with life (with "the facts") IS religion's purview and even one of its primary purposes.

Again, why is THIS engagement so upsetting? Why are so many men here (I have assumed you are male) so upset that a bunch of religious men and women assess the morality of these facts so differently?

Why the offense that they are using moral language?

Why all the umbrage?

Why not just disagree?

JR Cosgrove
1 year 1 month ago

You said nothing in your long reply that disagrees with my position. So you are thus endorsing what I said. Read what I said carefully. My point has always been that the writers here and the demonstrations do not have the moral position. I am discussing morals. But morality must consider the entire picture. This is about politics and not morality

J Jones
1 year 1 month ago

Interesting logic, J. You are correct: I doid not understand your comment. You are not offended by their moral pisition because their moral assessment, in differinh from yours, invalidates it as a moral assessment and renders it purely emotional and political. I leave you to it.

JR Cosgrove
1 year 1 month ago

Again, you do not understand. Their moral position is not based on anything concrete nor does it include any understanding of all the factors. To issue a moral judgment under such circumstances is at best specious.

J Jones
1 year 1 month ago


Judith Jordan
1 year 1 month ago

J Jones--
This issue of morality reminds me of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Dr. King’s nonviolent demonstrations were criticized by many who could not see that his work was based on morality and trying to eliminate the immorality of the “legal” treatment of blacks. His critics claimed his cause was not a moral issue, but a political one. Even today, many do not see racism as a moral issue; or they deny its existence. Thus, we have all the hysterical defense of Trump no matter how low he sinks.

Keep up the good work, J Jones.

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
1 year 1 month ago

Preaching the Good News of Liberation is a challenging mission.

Edwin Hess
1 year 1 month ago

Ellis Island was not an open border. Immigrants had to pass through inspections and quite a few were sent back. The threat of drugs and criminals and terrorists were not a problem in those days. The immigrants did register and become legal residents waiting to became citizens. And when the census was taken, immigrants were identified as such, but they had no fear because they entered legally. By the way, it seems that quite a few immigrants are now also coming from areas other than South and Central America, but are also using our southern border to enter illegally.

And now many in Congress who denied funds to secure the border and create better facilities to handle the ever-growing hordes and to increase the number of processing centers to approve legal immigration - these very same people are now blaming the problems on those who were pleading with them for years to pass laws to grant money to help resolve the problem, the Crisis. It is disgraceful to put it mildly.


The latest from america

The judges are Amy Coney Barrett, a federal appellate court judge in Chicago, and Barbara Lagoa, a federal appeals court judge in Atlanta.
Why are there so many Catholics on the nation’s highest court?
Allyson EscobarSeptember 21, 2020
Ginsburg died at her home in Washington of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer.
This production of ‘Godspell’ is striving to be the benchmark for a possible future for theater.
Lindsay ChessareSeptember 18, 2020