It is hard to say what he will remember. But my 3-year-old has memorized every line of “Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night,” so I thought there was a good chance that a few lessons from the protest might also stick. And so it was that we set out from New Jersey on an early morning Amtrak train to Washington, D.C., to join the Catholic Day of Action for Immigrant Children.
I had done my best to prepare him. I told him that when people come to our country and they are in need we want them to be treated kindly. We want the kids and their parents to stay together. We want the kids to have things like soap and toothbrushes and sleep. We are going to Washington, D.C., I said, to tell the people who make the laws that we want them to make sure this happens. We want to show love to our neighbor—like Jesus did.
As I packed for the trip, it occurred to me that the only other protest I could remember attending was the March for Life when I was 18. If I am passionate about an issue, I am more likely to write a letter or make a phone call to an elected official than I am to show up at their office. So the point of going to the protest was not to teach my son that a protest is the only response to injustice but that our faith calls us to speak out on behalf of those at the margins. And as my anger about the treatment of children at our border has grown, this protest by faith-filled people seemed a good first step.
Perhaps he will remember the mother who spoke of her experience as an immigrant while she balanced her 17-month-old child on her hip.
Of course, the train ride was the highlight of his day. (“This is so cool!” he yelled at 6 a.m. to the scattered and sleepy passengers in our Amtrak car.) But I am hopeful that moments from the few hours between our journeys down and up the I-95 corridor might help him better understand what it means and what it takes to welcome the stranger.
Maybe he will remember the prayers and songs. Maybe he will remember how he carefully studied the crowd standing with the banners and posters and then stood and proudly held his own sign aloft in communion with them—the same sign he would later pull over his head like a hat, shake like a fan in front of his stomach and kick at with his feet as he sat in the stroller and I handed him fistfuls of crackers lest he start his own protest.
Maybe he will remember the purple T-shirts of the Mercy Sisters and associates. Maybe he will remember that I let him eat more than his typical allotment of chocolate-covered raisins. Perhaps he will remember sitting on my lap in 100-degree heat and being surrounded by a community of love or the mother who spoke of her experience as an immigrant while she balanced her 17-month-old child on her hip.
No child should experience at the hands of our government things that I do not even want my son to hear about second-hand.
He might remember the Franciscan in his long, brown robe chatting amicably with the police officer in his blue uniform, bathed in light beneath the dome of the Russell Senate building’s rotunda. Maybe he will think more about what was printed on the sign we held together, sitting on the marble floor: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
I already know that he remembers the protesters lying on the ground, forming a cross with their bodies, holding photos of children who died in U.S. detention on their chests. On the train ride home, he laid his plastic figure of Marshall (the “Paw Patrol” fire dog character) and his fire truck on the tray table and told me they were lying down and protesting. “They are wearing pictures of the kids who need everything,” he said.
I did not tell him that the photos were of children who had died because for now, I can shield him from that horror. But that was also why we marched: because no child should experience at the hands of our government things that I do not even want my son to hear about second-hand.
I was reminded of how privileged I am to have had the choice not only to bring my son to a protest but to know I would leave with him at my side.
I hoped to teach my son that we live our faith in the world and that if it does not urge us to love more fiercely and to change the world for the better we need to rethink how we are living it. I want my son to see mercy in action, and that has compelled me to try to be one of the people taking action.
Of course, it is possible my son will remember nothing of the day, save for what I repeat to him later, in the way that my parents’ stories of my early childhood have begun to feel like my own. Or maybe, years from now, he will simply remember that there was something that I cared about enough to introduce it to him early in his life, and he will become more curious about the faith that motivated me. Maybe one day he will understand that I see his face in the face of every child at the border.
For now, I know from his chatter that he remembers the siren blaring from the police officer’s megaphone before she warned us, once, twice, three times to leave or risk arrest. I know he thought it was too loud and covered his ears. And I know this: I will always remember how, after the third warning, one of the officers looked me in the eye and said slowly and seriously, “If you are not planning to get arrested, you need to leave.” And I was reminded of how privileged I am to have had the choice not only to bring my son to a protest but to know I would leave with him at my side. To walk slowly down the marble halls of the senators’ office building pushing my son in an old umbrella stroller and to emerge onto the sunlit sidewalk as though nothing had happened. To then sit on the lawn outside the Capitol building and to eat more of those crackers and to marvel together at the ants crawling over the crumbs. “Let’s share them,” he says of the crackers, as I pull the box out of the diaper bag. “Good idea,” I say.
“Here,” he said handing one to me, laughing. “You are my neighbor.”