Standing on the National Mall in January, in the midst of the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., I begin to panic. I’m surrounded by people as far as I can see, with no discernible form of escape. I start pushing my way out of the centre of the crowd, hoping for some breathing room in the periphery.
“You know what’s behind you,” one man explains to me smugly. “More people.”
I don’t care. This is how stampedes happen, I think, and I don’t want to die in one.
Crushing numbers of people swarming a federal capital is, in hindsight, proof of an event’s success. But in that moment, the only thing that seemed to be preventing the whole effort from going awry was hundreds of thousands of people clinging tenaciously to morality. The smallest slip of our grasp on grace could have plunged us all into chaos.
That grace is something that many faith leaders are trying to make space for in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency. The resistance to Trump, some have suggested, is not merely political — it’s become a moral and spiritual stance. The Atlantic has talked about a boost in progressive church attendance after the election of the 45th president of the United States. My former church, St. Lydia’s in Brooklyn, responded nearly immediately to his victory with an anti-hate organizing group. When I heard that the multifaith, justice-oriented Auburn Seminary in New York City was planning a pilgrimage of sorts to D.C. for the Women’s March, I arrived at 4:30 a.m. to begin the journey.
The two buses are filled with about 40 people each, mostly from religious programs or church groups, or just associated with the seminary. Over the next four hours, we’ll pray, sleep, eat snacks passed around by organizers and get in pairs to talk about our intentions. Paul Raushenbush, Auburn’s senior vice-president, says that organizers wanted the bus ride to be about more than just transportation; they wanted to “create an opportunity for real healing but also clarity and inspiration and community.”
These touchstones “would guide us as we create an America we’re all called to,” he says. “This feels like a difficult moment — but we’re still called to that.”
We sleep for a while, and then we’re asked to sit with someone new and hold a stone, talking about why we’re each going to D.C. today. A Canadian named Carissa Reiniger tells me she’s marching for the people in her life who’ve felt hurt or marginalized by the incoming president. I tell her I won’t be marching — reporters tend to be hesitant about aligning ourselves with causes — but my mission is to “bear witness to the next four years.”
Pressing on the stone in my hand, I feel a sense of gravitas to this trip I hadn’t felt before. We’re not here alone, I realize. Whether it’s by documenting the truth or waving a sign, we’re here together to be part of something bigger.
After the march, Reiniger and I ask each other how our mission went, and I decide I have something to add. I’m not simply going to bear witness to the next four years, I say — I want to hold people accountable.
She also has something to add: “I’m committed.”
She’s ready to double down on her fight for human rights and for justice, in whatever form that takes for her. I am, too. Ending up in the midst of the next crowd doesn’t scare me anymore.
Katie Toth is a journalist currently living in Halifax.