Looking Back: Reflecting on an Act of Civil Disobedience

April 19, 2018

By Sister Karen Donahue

On February 27, 42 faith leaders were arrested in the Rotunda of the Russell Senate Building after refusing to disperse by request of the Capitol police. They stood in solidarity with Dreamers, young people protected from deportation by President Obama’s 2012 DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program who now face deportation under the Trump administration.

Sister Karen Donahue

Sister Karen Donahue (right) stands with other Catholic women religious for justice for immigrants.

It is not every day that one receives a call extending an invitation to engage in an act of civil disobedience. Yet this is what happened to me early in February 2018.

The caller was Sister JoAnn Persch who has been deeply involved in the struggle for compassionate and humane immigration reform for many years. Faith in Public Life, a Washington, D.C.-based organization working to change the narrative about the role of faith in politics, had contacted Sister JoAnn and Pat Murphy to consider the possibility of having a group of Catholic women religious engage in a nonviolent civil disobedience. The act would take place on Capitol Hill in solidarity with the Dreamers.

I have to admit that I did not have a moment’s hesitation in responding affirmatively to JoAnn’s request. I have taken part in several civil disobedience actions over the years and know that it is not something to be taken lightly. Civil disobedience is something to which one is called and our Chapter commitment to stand in solidarity with immigrants seeking fullness of life was calling me to move beyond the vigils, visitation of immigrants held in detention and the political advocacy in which I am already engaged.  

During the weeks leading up to our February 27 arrest in the rotunda of the Russell Senate House Office Building I felt a deep peace about my decision. It is the right thing to do. During my drive to Washington, D.C., the time in the car provided an additional opportunity to reflect on why I was doing this and my responsibility to confront the systems that are destroying the lives of our immigrant sisters and brothers.

During the approximately four hours that we were in the custody of the Capitol Police, I never felt that we were in danger of harm. The officers were cordial and helpful. They made sure we had water and that our handcuffs were not too tight. Nevertheless, I could not help but think of the hundreds of immigrants picked up by ICE that day. How were they treated? We had all made a conscious decision to risk arrest. They had no say in the circumstances surrounding their arrest.

Was this yet another instance of white privilege? Our group was overwhelmingly white and well educated. The officers knew who we were. How would we have been treated if we had been a group of African Americans or Latinos?

We in the Mercy group had the strength of solidarity with each other and many of us knew some of the participants from other religious communities or groups. What must it be like to be arrested and detained alone? I can’t imagine what it would be like to be thrown into a situation of arrest with no one to lean on for support and comfort. Hundreds of immigrants face this reality every day.

Sisters of Mercy

Sisters of Mercy stand on solidarity with immigrants.

Finally, there is the question – will our action make any difference? Civil disobedience itself is controversial. Some view it as counterproductive and a waste of time. Others question the very idea of breaking the law.

Personally, I see civil disobedience as a way of making it impossible to ignore a situation of injustice. We need only look at Gandhi in British-controlled India and the civil rights movement here in the United States. Civil disobedience also creates the space for others to take action. If those who engage in civil disobedience can put themselves at risk, then maybe I can do something like attend a rally or contact my lawmakers.

Ultimately, this is an act of faith. I have no idea who will be moved to take action by what we did or if anyone will be moved. However, our action can be thought of as one snowflake that will coalesce with many others to finally break the branch and bring about justice for our immigrant sisters and brothers.

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  1. Suzanne Gallagher, RSM

    Karen, I am a person who stood on the side-lines and watched as you all prayerfully and nonviolently demonstrated your solidarity with so many people and protested the laws and actions that terrorize our immigrant brothers and sisters. I can assure you,I and others, are moved to action! As you engaged in civil disobedience and put yourselves at risk, I am prompted to ask myself the question “what will I do?”


  2. Sr. Louise Foisy, rsm

    Thank you for your public action on behalf of our immigrant sisters and brothers who do not have legal documents to remain in the USA. Your explanation and reflections on your action are important.


  3. Ana Siufi

    congratulation for your action of justice and peace!


  4. Carolyn McWatters, RSM

    Karen, thank you for sharing your experience so honestly and sensitively. I see such acts as courageous and necessary to call attention to injustice, especially when the outcries seem to be falling on deaf ears. I am grateful to you and the others who acted with such courage. Thank you.