Pilgrimage moves through Modesto to raise awareness about the plight of immigrants

Pilgrimage moves through Turlock and Modesto to raise awareness about the plight of immigrants

A pilgrimage to Sacramento that started in Fresno a week ago made its way into Modesto, California, with a message of solidarity with immigrants living in the Central Valley under the constant fear of deportation.
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A pilgrimage to Sacramento that started in Fresno a week ago made its way into Modesto, California, with a message of solidarity with immigrants living in the Central Valley under the constant fear of deportation.

A 226-mile pilgrimage to Sacramento that started in Fresno a week ago made its way into Modesto on Saturday with a message of solidarity with immigrants living in the Central Valley under the constant fear of deportation.

“The Pilgrimage of Hope” was organized by the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin to increase public awareness of the plight of immigrants and refugees in the Valley, along with raising money for a legal defense fund to help people facing deportation in federal immigration courts.

Bishop David Rice of the diocese, which includes Episcopal churches from Taft to Lodi, and three others have walked each mile of the pilgrimage, which started May 4 at St. James Episcopal Cathedral in Fresno. He said they’ve encountered many immigrants expressing their fear of deportation.

“It’s a population living with uncertainty, and the fear of deportation is still intense,” Rice said, while taking a lunch break Thursday along their trek near Livingston in Merced County.

Officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE, have argued that their agency’s focus is on national security, public safety and border security. But sanctuary laws, like those in California to protect undocumented immigrants, force ICE to conduct broader enforcement, including at-large arrests in local neighborhoods, instead of jails.

The pilgrimage will conclude May 20 at the “Day of the Immigrant” event at the state capitol in Sacramento. For Rice and the others on the pilgrimage, they call their trek 16 consecutive days of “walking, praying and reflecting.”

Several others have joined them in a walk that’s winding through rural roads for portions of the pilgrimage. On Saturday, they walked about 15 miles from St. Francis’ Episcopal Church on East Main Street in Turlock to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Oakdale Road in east Modesto.

As they have at other stops along the way, the pilgrimage stopped at the Modesto church Saturday. At each stop, they have gathered with the local faith community to share the purpose of the walk, learn about local concerns of immigrants, and pray together.

The pilgrimage was expected to continue Sunday from the Modesto church to St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Ripon. That will be followed by stops in Manteca, Stockton, Lodi, Galt and Elk Grove, before reaching Sacramento.

Valley heat

Those walking are not out there alone. They’re followed by support teams riding in vehicles, including Wil Colon, a Modesto resident and member of the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church congregation. His job, along with keeping the walkers on time and on the route, is to tend to blisters and cramped muscles.

“It’s the Valley, and there’s not much shade, so it gets a little hot for the walkers,” Colon said. “The determination is really strong in this walk.”

Their stops haven’t only been at Episcopal churches. As the pilgrimage headed from Le Grand to Merced on Wednesday, Colon said they had stopped at two Catholic churches, a Methodist church and a Lutheran church along the way.

At each town, volunteers have opened their homes to the walkers and several members of their support teams. They wash their clothes and feed them before the pilgrimage participants rest for the night. Each day, they start walking about 8 a.m., take a lunch break about noon, and continue before reaching the next destination that afternoon.

“People have been generous; the hospitality has been great,” Rice told The Bee. “And the motorists have been kind.”

Along with raising money for the legal defense fund, they have asked for donations to buy supplies for the pilgrimage, such as water, gauze tape, blister pads and plenty of bananas.

Immigration task force

Colon is a member of an immigration task force formed in 2017 by the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin. Its effort is to build a ministry program, learning what the needs are and providing help to those fearing deportation or seeking help with these issues.

“We are all valued human beings, regardless of race or nationality,” Colon said.

The group on the pilgrimage has encountered drivers along the way, who wave back at them with friendly greetings, Rice said. Others — including one man driving a tractor — have stopped and asked why they’re walking out on these country roads. Rice admitted that maybe these drivers initially thought the group was stranded with car trouble.

But he said the exchanges with passersby have been encouraging as they walk through the heart of the Central Valley’s agriculture industry. Rice spoke with family of farmers, he said, who were worried about immigrant workers they employ being deported.

“These people are not a commodity to (these farmers); these are people they love,” Rice said. “If these people were all gone tomorrow, it would wreck this economy.”

The pilgrimage has established a presence online with the help of Nelson Serrano, a priest from Colombia who has managed their social media posts. They have posted photos, testimonials and Facebook Live videos as they walk to the state capitol.

“We want people to engage with us from wherever they are,” Rice said about their social media posts.

Rice said their pilgrimage is not about a debate between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, arguing over immigration laws. He said their message is about following their faith and standing with those immigrants most vulnerable.

The diocese and its churches have partnered with Faith in the Valley, a nonprofit group that offers help to under-served residents in Stanislaus, Merced, San Joaquin, Fresno and Kern counties. Faith in the Valley launched the Valley Watch Network in September and created rapid response teams.

“So, we need to be honest about these conversations,” Rice said about the plight of immigrants. “We believe in the Episcopal Church that what happens to the other affects me.”

To find out more about the pilgrimage or donate to the legal defense fund, visit the Pilgrimage of Hope website at www.thepilgrimageofhope.org.

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Rosalio Ahumada writes news stories about criminal court cases in Stanislaus County for The Modesto Bee, issues related to immigration and immigrant communities and breaking news related to crime and public safety. From time to time, he covers the Modesto City Council meetings. He has worked as a news reporter in the Northern San Joaquin Valley since 2004.