On the road with the Freedom Ride

On the road with the Freedom Ride

From Sept. 29 to Oct. 2, Edith Rasell, minister for labor relations and community economic development with the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries, joined the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. Here's a diary of her four-day experience:


Monday, Sept. 29 2003

Her story grips me. While driving to a meeting, a tire goes fl at. A state patrolman stops to help. But hearing the driver's broken English, he asks to see her driver's license. This young immigrant mother, after living for many years in the U.S. without "documents," is suddenly pulled from the shadows into a legal stoplight and will be deported. But her children, born in the U.S. and, therefore, U.S. citizens, are free to stay. The decision she is facing is one that no one should be forced to make. When she returns to Mexico, should she leave her children behind to enjoy all the advantages and opportunities that are available here? Or should she take her children with her back to Mexico, knowing that their future there will likely be very bleak?

How would I respond to this choice? I can't even bear to think about it. Luckily I don't have to since I am a U.S. citizen.

It is Monday about noon, just a few hours into my journey with the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. This morning in Cleveland, I boarded one of three buses that had left Chicago two days earlier on their way to Washington, D.C., and New York City. The bus will be my home for the next three days and the Freedom Riders will become my friends.

The riders are a very diverse group and include the native born as well as documented and undocumented immigrants. Many of the riders are working people, the folks who do some of our country's hardest and dirtiest work, often for little pay—washing dishes, working in nursing homes.

Our first stop is in Buffalo, N.Y., where lunch and an educational forum have been organized by a coalition of justice groups led by the Committee for Economic Justice (CEJ). I have worked with CEJ in the past and now meet, face to- face and for the first time, with Wayne Alt, the Rev. Bob Grimm, and Roger Cook, all active UCC members.

Later in the afternoon, we stop near Rochester, N.Y., for a rally with farm workers, tired and dirty from their day in the fields. Many of the Freedom Riders are deeply moved by these men, who appear to be as weary in their souls as in their bodies. As the two groups mingle together, there are hugs and tears. Soon, it is time to get back on the bus. But the Freedom Riders won't leave! What can we do for these hurting people? Within minutes, over $450 is collected. Although many of the Freedom Riders have very little when judged by typical U.S. standards, they have been deeply moved by these workers.

If I were paid just $13,000 a year, would I be eager to pull $20 from my pocket to give to a farm worker?

Tuesday, Sept. 30

I am able to be on the bus because solidarity work is part of my job. But why are others taking a week off work to support rights for immigrants? My seat mate is a very pleasant, middle-aged, African- American woman whose ancestors probably came to this country in chains. Yolanda (not her real name) has worked for the past 14 years in hotels, first as a housekeeper cleaning rooms and now in a more advanced position. Earlier in her career, she became good friends with a co-worker who was an immigrant. She noticed that her friend never spoke out in meetings, not even to respond to false criticism. So Yolanda began to speak up for her and now is recognized as a strong advocate for all the immigrants working in the hotel. Her commitment to justice for her immigrant co-workers led her to participate in the Freedom Ride. Many of the riders have had similar experiences.

After a midday stop in Syracuse, N.Y., and a moving interfaith service organized by the Rev. Craig Schaub, pastor of Plymouth Congregational UCC, we are off to Liverpool, N.Y., for a rally with sheet-metal workers. Their employer is threatening to shut the plant and move their jobs overseas. Clearly the global economy is not helping these workers. But the large number of immigrants risking death to enter the U.S. from Latin America is strong evidence that the global economy is not benefiting workers in the global south either. Who is being helped by our international economic policies? Clearly it's not workers, either in the U.S. or around the world.

Wednesday, Oct. 1

A long drive from Albany, N.Y., the site of last night's rally, to Washington, D.C. Tonight, some 900 Freedom Riders from 16 buses will gather together for the first time. I am tired after only three days on the bus. But people from the west coast have already been on their buses for 10 days—just thinking about it is exhausting. I am too old for this!

In Washington, the atmosphere outside The church is electric. The sidewalk is packed with lines of riders and crowds of local supporters, many of whom carry flags and signs indicating their nations of origin: Haiti, Equador, the Netherlands, Mexico, El Salvador, Cambodia, Laos, India. Everyone is cheering. High energy! As we exit the bus and file through the crowd toward the church, we pass a wall of supporters, their hands raised to connect with each of us in an endless row of high-fives. Slap, "Good job!" Slap, "Freedom!" We enter the church and are hit by the roar of the people seated inside.

We are blessed with three invocations: Muslim, Jewish and Christian—the last of which is delivered by the Rev. Graylan Hagler, pastor of Plymouth Congregational UCC in Washington, D.C. We hear more stories of hardship and oppression, and also stories of courage and hope. African Americans lift up Cesar Chavez. Latinos praise Martin Luther King Jr. The boundaries of race, ethnicity, religion and class that ordinarily separate us are down. There is enormous power and wondrous joy in this freedom. We are all God's children.

Thursday, Oct. 2

This is lobby day, the time we are to visit our Congressional representatives and urge them to pass legislation to improve the lives of immigrants. The Freedom Riders advance upon the halls of Congress in the same way they advanced across the country—with courage, determination, and passionate commitment. These seemingly powerless people are not intimidated by marble halls and titles like "Senator" and "Congressman."

This is my last day on the Freedom Ride; I am not going on to the rally in New York. But I wonder—what has the Ride accomplished? I know that in the 105 cities where the buses have stopped, people were educated and their lives were touched by these riders. Extensive media coverage put the issue of immigrants' rights before additional millions of Americans. Coalitions and relationships were formed that will continue to be a force for justice for immigrants and other marginalized people.

On a deeper level, it seems a turning point has been reached. Injustice has become so extreme that the voiceless are crying out and their friends have joined them. We saw in the Freedom Rides of the 1960s that when the voiceless begin to speak and their allies join with them, there can be no turning back. The road will not be smooth. But the journey is begun and it won't be stopped. Our God of justice has promised that when two or three are gathered together in God's name, God will be present there. If this is true, then what happens when 1,000 or 100,000 are gathered together in God's name and in the name of justice? And what if the gathered pilgrims are so diverse and loving that, momentarily, every boundary that commonly divides God's children is erased? What then? Can we not begin to see a new world dawning?

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