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More than a half a million people take part in the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. Photo courtesy of Mark Dixon/Wikimedia Commons

Gathering in divine defiance

‘It’s entirely possible to experience the communion of saints in a crowd of half a million’

By Anne Bokma


The first time I marched in a rally was in the early 1980s, when Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s abortion clinics were being shut down and he was arrested by police. I don’t remember much about that march except worrying that my very religious parents might find out that I participated in it. That, and being called a “baby killer” at a party later that night, when a guy saw a pro-choice button on my shirt.

It would be decades before I marched again, but in the past two months, I’ve gotten up off my feet to attend a vigil, a march and a rally.

It was the devil (and you know who I mean) who made me do it. Some wonder if public demonstrations accomplish much of anything. I’m not sure, but Trump’s election brought on such intense feelings of hopelessness that I had to stand shoulder to shoulder with other like-minded citizens.

In early December, I had my first opportunity when I headed down to city hall in my hometown of Hamilton. I had learned that there was a memorial stone, which had been laid there years before in honour of the 14 women killed in the 1989 Montreal Massacre. Thirty strangers gathered in a circle for a 15-minute ceremony and laid long-stemmed blood-red roses on the memorial while snowflakes floated onto our bowed heads. Those minutes felt both sacred and sorrowful. Perhaps nothing was accomplished except remembering.

When Tracey Erin Smith, director of Toronto’s Soulo Theatre, woke up the day after the U.S. election, she wept. Then she dried her tears, rented a bus she dubbed the “Soulomobile” and invited 60 women to join her for the Women’s March in Washington D.C. I donned a pink ‘pussy hat’ as if it were a sacramental vestment and climbed aboard, pushing back fears that the march might be an ideal target for a polytechnique-type sniper. Little did I know that I was in for one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life — one that revealed it’s entirely possible to experience the communion of saints in a crowd of half a million.

The crowd was so thick that it was sometimes more of a shuffle than a march. I passed the peace with strangers — in fact, there were tears and hugs from Americans who were stunned that Canadians would participate with them. There were moving benedictions of song, including a women’s choir performing  “Singing for Our Lives” along the National Mall and a man with a guitar strumming “This Land is Your Land” as we waited in an hour-long lineup for the port-o-potty. The ritualistic chanting took on the intensity of righteous fervour and included a call-and-response in front of the White House: “Whose house? Our house!” Posters featured the ecclesiastical slogan of “Hate does not make us great,” which echoed the wisdom of  Bible verses. (In fact, I did see at least one Bible verse on signs: “Love Thy Neighbour.”) At times, an almighty, earth-rattling roar rose and fell over the crowd like a clarion call for battle. If I were a more religious person, I’d say that it was the holy spirit on a holy tear. Feminist activist Gloria Steinem also rose to the podium like Moses on the mountain and, surveying the sea of pink hats before her, called out to her people: “I wish you could see yourselves. It’s like an ocean.”

Perhaps nothing was accomplished except gathering with others in divine defiance.

Then, just a couple of weeks ago, I headed back to Hamilton City Hall again — this time to rally with 1,000 others after the shooting deaths of six Muslim men in a bloody attack at a Quebec City mosque. A Canadian flag, positioned at half mast, whipped around in the icy chill as Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberg said that “an attack against one is an attack against us all.” Many held candles and the flames created halos around their faces.

Perhaps nothing was accomplished except standing together in solidarity.

Protests usually don’t effect change right away. Consider that women didn’t get the right to vote until seven years after the famous 1913 Suffrage Parade, which saw 5,000 march in Washington D.C. But sometimes they have an immediate impact. Four months after 60 activists with disabilities painstakingly crawled up the steps of Capitol Hill, the long-fought for Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. Whether or not change happens as a result of them, vigils, rallies and marches serve an important purpose. They allow us to bear witness to the suffering of others, to choose some sort of action over apathy, to recognize that we are not alone, to alter public opinion and serve as an antidote to the divisiveness we see around us. Sometimes, they can even rouse us from our spiritual malaise by reminding us what it means to love our neighbour as ourself.

On a trip to Winnipeg this week, I toured the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which documents the struggles of the oppressed all over the world, as well as the brave people who had the courage to raise their fist in the air, sit in the ‘wrong’ seat of a segregated movie theatre or city bus, stick a flower down the barrel of a gun at an anti-Vietnam protest or stand in front of a tank at Tiananmen Square.

It’s a profoundly moving place to be, especially now. That’s why Winnipeg mayor Mayor Brian Bowman chose the museum as the site of a march last week after the Quebec City mosque killings. It sent a message that his city embraces diversity. One thousand people circled the massive museum during the event. “It’s really important, each and every day, through these acts and so many others that we show people our values in action,” Bowman told the attendees.

There’s no doubt something powerful can be stirred deep within when we put our feet on the street. Perhaps nothing is accomplished except an internal transformation — the kind that doesn’t immediately change the world but certainly changes you.


Author's photo
Anne Bokma is a Hamilton-based journalist. Her column, "Spiritual But Secular," appears monthly in The Observer.
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