PUTNEY — On a gray and rainy Wednesday, Ann Zimmerman of Guilford and I set off with a group of about 50 people on the second annual Solidarity Walk for Immigrant Justice, beginning at South Church in Concord, N.H. and walking for four days to the county jail in Dover, N.H.
This jail is where many undocumented workers, including hard-working and much-needed agricultural workers formerly living in Vermont, are incarcerated. This was my first time with this group, although Ann participated on the walk last year.
Ann and I, with Laura Chapman of Putney, started the group Brattleboro Area Not in Our Name after we were enraged, horrified, saddened, and energized by the images of babies and small children held in cages in a manner we would consider animal abuse if a dog pound treated its charges so.
The Trump administration's abject cruelty and absolute inability to even pretend to care about the fate of these brown-skinned families has brought tears to the eyes of millions of Americans.
This walk, from Aug. 21 through 24, was sponsored by a group of organizations, including the American Friends Service Committee, but the real eye-opener for me was the leadership and radical voices of both the New Hampshire Council of Churches and the faith-inspired Granite State Organizing Project, and from around the country in the form of some amazing pastors from a group called Faith in Action.
We have been working with some wonderful local clergy, but the extent of active leadership and time spent by these religious women and men was amazing to me, as that has not seemed to be the case as of yet in our work in southern Vermont.
I joked with a number of these folks that I, a secular Jew, have spent more time with pastors of the Christian faith in four days than in my 65 years on Earth!
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We walked about 12 miles each day and were treated to evening programs each of three nights.
On our second day, a day we knew would be the toughest for those of us who have a hard time with heat and humidity, we were sent off with the stirring words of Nina Turner. She is a national co-chair of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, a preacher's daughter, and a great inspiration.
We were fed lunch in a public library by a group who arose to fight the presence of a Confederate flag in a mural in a local public school.
Each evening, we were first treated to a generous and much-appreciated potluck dinner prepared by local members of different supportive churches, and some of us slept in Sunday-school classrooms and between the pews.
On Thursday night, an asylum-seeking family - Mercy, Daniel, and their wonderful 7-year-old daughter, Ashley - told their harrowing story. Because Daniel was a truck driver in El Salvador, he parked his large semi in front of his home at night.
The local gang presumed that he would have enough money to pay them $25,000, which they demanded, threatening to murder Ashley. When she finished school one day, gang members showed up to threaten this child with death if her father did not pay up.
Mercy then risked her life to come to the U.S. to try to bring the family to relative safety.
There was not a dry eye in the church as Mercy told the story of her near-death experiences on this journey. This family is brave, beautiful, and so much more worthy of safety, refuge, and legal status in the country than the racist haters who are in charge of our ever-worsening immigration system.
For the first three days, our numbers ranged from around 40 to 75 people, but on the last day, we were meeting a group that had walked from Boston and smaller groups that biked from Montpelier and walked from Maine, as well as some supporters who arrived to walk the last segment.
We converged for an amazing lunch prepared by a large group of Indonesian Christians, settled refugees in the Seacoast area in New Hampshire and in southern Maine who have been assisted by some of the same people who were on the walk.
We were welcomed in Madbury with music by a brass band, a sustaining and delicious meal prepared by our Indonesian hosts (who generously fed at least 200 people!), and a dance program.
With full bellies, we then proceeded to walk the 6 miles to the Strafford County Jail.
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For the last half mile, we were silent as we approached the detention center, with only the powerful sound of Michaela from Putney beating her drum slowly and solemnly.
As we approached the jail, we were greeted by another 100 or more folks, including 15 to 20 from the Brattleboro area who had joined to show their support for these unjustly detained workers and asylum seekers.
We then entered the grassy area in front of the prison, and the clergy present held a funeral, naming all those who have died at the hands of ICE.
After we extended into a line of 300 or so, we sang and tried to communicate our love and grief for those in the prison.
In the darkness, we held a candlelight vigil outside of the prison.
Most of us were in tears, as we could hear the prisoners banging on the walls, waving to us. In the daylight, we also could see faces in the small windows of the jail.
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One aspect of an extended walk is that we have the time and opportunity to meet new people and hold in-depth discussions about the issues we are walking to highlight, our fears about a government moving ever closer to fascism, and also about completely unrelated subjects.
I had the privilege to walk with some of the Faith in Action pastors and have learned a great deal about how some extremely progressive activists have become clergy in order to work to completely upend the system and replace it with a humane, just, and moral future.
I was so lucky to walk with one of the citizen legislators from Merrimack, N.H. and learn about how she is working for change.
While we were walking, the Trump administration decided to make its border policies even more cruel and monstrous. We learned that our government is going to officially try to fight the terms of the Flores Settlement, the 1997 agreement that defines a basic level for the conditions in which asylum seekers and migrants can be held.
Our government has not been following this agreement. Our officials are possibly in criminal contempt, but they have decided to make it official that there are now no limits to the time they can imprison families, no limits to the deprivation they can inflict on those fleeing for their lives.
I will certainly do all I can to lift up those who work as our elder caregivers, the workers on our farms, the caretakers for many American children, and the loving families and desperate people who elevate our country.
The very idea that these people are bad for America, criminals, or illegal is driven by racist, xenophobic thinking that has no place in government, much less in the highest power in the land.
If this walk happens again next year, Ann and I will be there.