Sister Jean Greenwald, with the School Sisters of Notre Dame, ordered a coffee at a McDonald’s in Joplin, Mo. The cashier gave her a political lecture with her caffeine.
He asked where the large group she entered with was headed. They were going to Fort Sill, Okla., to protest a plan to detain migrant children at the Army base, she explained.
“It’s the Democrats,” the cashier told her. He blamed them for not funding the wall, which he believed would solve the crisis at the border.
“Well, I can’t agree with that,” Greenwald said gently, “but we need to be talking about this instead of demonizing one another.”
The cashier insisted “the Democrats” were to blame.
Greenwald took her coffee and headed back to the two charter buses filled with more than a hundred people from St. Louis. She sat next to Sister Virginia Grumich, an 81-year-old former teacher who endured the 24-hour round-trip bus ride and the two-hour protest in temperatures nearing 100 degrees with remarkable good cheer. Grumich hadn’t protested anything in nearly 50 years, but like the others, felt compelled to do something — anything — to denounce what has happened to children and families seeking asylum at the border.
Who were these people who took two days out of their week for this exhausting trip, I wondered. And, what did they hope to accomplish with this mission?
I discovered the group included teenagers, octogenarians, a retired judge, reverends, rabbis, teachers, lawyers and lay people. They had paid around $120 each to join this caravan, which included an overnight stay in Lawton, Okla., and also paid for their own meals. It all started when four Jewish organizations in St. Louis and the Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice decided to form a coalition because they felt the current way immigrants entering the country are being treated lacks common decency. They called their group the Heartland for Human Justice Coalition and decided on a simple message: Stop separating children from their families, reunite the families that have been separated, treat immigrants with dignity and give people a way to seek liberty in our country.
Really, none of that seems controversial, especially in a country built by immigrants.
They discovered that many other people agreed and within a couple of weeks, more than 25 other local nonprofits joined the coalition.
In the meantime, a few other groups had protested at Fort Sill, which has a particularly relevant history. Hundreds of Japanese and Japanese-American people were detained there by the federal government during World War II, and it was also used to hold Apache prisoners of war from 1894 to 1910. The Obama administration also housed migrant children at Fort Sill in 2014.
Even though the Department of Health and Human Services announced a few days ago that the Trump plan to move children there had been halted, the coalition decided it would still go.
NBC News reported last month that at least 1,712 migrant children may have been separated from their parents, in addition to those pulled away during the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration crackdown. More than 2,800 children were believed to have been taken from their parents as a result of the family separation policy that went into effect last May.
This journey was about more than Fort Sill for the participants.
Vera Emmons, a volunteer at the Holocaust Museum in St. Louis, said her mother came to America as a refugee and Holocaust survivor after the war. Her grandparents had tried to come to America before the war but were denied.
“That’s the crux of it right there,” she said.
Sara Irlbeck, who manages Hampton Village Pediatrics, brought her 15-year-old daughter and her friend along with her on the trip.
“This is really near and dear to our hearts,” she said. Her wife’s medical practice serves many immigrants and refugees. “We don’t understand why everyone isn’t up in arms about this.”
Irlbeck started to tear up while talking about the plight of parents trying to escape dangerous conditions to bring their children to safety. Her daughter’s friend also started to cry.
“I’m just thinking about not ever seeing my parents again,” she said. She is a legal immigrant from Honduras, but her mother did not want her name used out of fear of the current political environment.
Several of the participants cited their religious faith as compelling them to act.
“My Judaism teaches me this,” Emmons said. Irlbeck, who is Catholic, said this is how she was raised in the faith.
“We have to go out and fight for those in need,” she said. “For those who do not have a voice to fight for themselves.” Others invoked Jesus Christ as also a refugee and migrant.
On the bus, Cantor Joshua Finkel, spiritual leader of Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community, started playing his guitar and leading the group in songs like “This Land is Your Land” and “We Shall Overcome.”
By the time the group finally arrived in Lawton, where they would spend the night, a camaraderie had developed. They came from diverse backgrounds but found a common cause that moved them to take this pilgrimage of prayer and protest. They woke up early to make additional signs with messages like, “Keep Families Together” and signs with photos and names of the children who have died in American detention centers. They headed to a church that welcomed them to gather on their property.
The speakers, who included an Army wife whose husband had been stationed in Fort Sill decades ago, recounted the atrocities associated with the site. They read the names and ages of more than 30 migrants who have died in detention centers.
They sang, they prayed, many cried.
Then, they headed to the army base, where a police car waited by the side of the road. An organizer approached the officer and said they didn’t plan to disrupt anything. The officer told her they were there to protect them.
She thanked him, and the group gathered by the sign at the entrance.
Rabbi Susan Talve spoke about being witnesses to the pain and suffering that had happened on this ground. She sprinkled water on the ground to symbolically plant seeds of love and acceptance. A few passers-by in loud trucks yelled at them.
“I know in some ways it makes no sense to take all this time to go stand for two hours, and in some ways it makes all the sense in the world,” Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, one of the organizers, had said on the bus ride there.
They boarded the buses without any incident to return to their regular lives.
At a rest stop, a long line snaked outside the bathroom entry. Another traveler asked one of the participants, who wore a shirt that said, “Stop Separating Families,” what the group was doing.
She told her that they had protested the treatment of asylum seekers at the border.
“Oh,” the woman, nodded. She paused and asked another question about the migrants.
The strangers shared a short conversation outside a restroom in a small town.
Maybe the purpose was in the journey, after all.