Powerless. It is a feeling, an emotion, that overwhelms the very essence of our being. Nothing dispels hope quite like the feeling of powerlessness. When I was a junior in college, I interned at the Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America in St. Louis. One project I worked on was putting together Paquetes de Poder. Paquetes de Poder, otherwise known as Power Packets, contained Know Your Rights materials and other resources to prepare immigrants for an encounter with law enforcement. Included in each zip-lock bag was a chain lock. The chain locks were to provide protection against unwanted entry by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Let that sink in for a moment. People were receiving a chain lock to protect themselves and their families from a federal law enforcement agency.
It was overwhelming for me to imagine the fear that people felt each day and the desperation that incited them to install a chain lock. As I was packing the bags, I began to cry. My tears were not well-hidden in the cramped, one-room office. My boss and mentor, Sara, looked at me and asked me how this work was making me feel. She knew what my answer was. I felt angry. I felt disturbed. I felt powerless. The truth is that I have not felt powerless very often in my life. This moment shook me. It agitated me (and still does). I remember Sara, as the amazing organizer she is, looking me straight in the eyes and saying, “So, what are you going to do about it?”
Since then, I have continued to be involved in justice work in the St. Louis area, most recently through the Loretto Volunteer Program. At my placement site, I have been working to oppose a bill in the Missouri Legislature that would create a police to ICE pipeline in our community. In January, the bill was scheduled for a public hearing. A small group of local advocates, representing different agencies, drove two hours to Jefferson City to testify. I was nervous (as anyone is nervous to speak in front of elected officials), but I did not know enough to be intimidated by what I was up against.
Nothing could have prepared me for just how hard it is to actually participate in democracy. The whole process is meant to deter participation. We found out the bill was scheduled for a hearing just days before it took place. Only an elite few are able to take off of work on a moment’s notice and drive all the way to the capitol. I was privileged enough to make it there, but upon arrival, was made to feel unwelcome. The white men in suits looked down upon me, taking advantage of the power dynamics between them and a young woman. All of this made me realize that politicians and government systems are actively working to constrain people power.
This realization was quite overwhelming for me. I questioned how I was supposed to stand up for my values in such an environment. However, I was continually reminded of how persistent and steadfast the Sisters that I work with are. Most have been involved in social activism for over 50 years. They have confronted powerful opponents and lost, but they have also confronted powerful opponents and won. In many ways, their lives reflect the life of Jesus. Jesus himself never had any political power. He lived and died in the shadow of the Roman Empire. That did not stop him from showing up for his people. He showed up even though people ignored him. He showed up even though people demeaned him. He kept showing up until he had enough power that he could not be shut down. Throughout my year as a Loretto Volunteer, I have witnessed women religious demonstrate this same level of unwavering support for their community.
The Tuesday after I testified at the capitol, I went back to the same room to testify on another calamitous immigration bill. It was a tough decision as I was completely terrified. However, I reflected on the lifelong work of women religious and was reminded of the words of Sara. “So, what are you going to do about it?” These words have questioned my courage throughout the entirety of my service year. However, they have also motivated me to dream of another world. And, the world I dream of, it is on its way.
This is Gabby’s final blog as a Serving with Sisters Contributor. As her service year comes to a close, we thank Gabby for sharing her journey with us! Check out CVN’s blog for Gabby’s previous blogs, and stories from other current and former volunteers.
Gabriele Eissner is a volunteer with the Loretto Volunteer Program and a CVN Serving with Sisters Contributor. This blog series is sponsored by our VOCARE Initiative, thanks to the support of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.