June 24, 2011
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- A candlelight march protesting Alabama's tough new immigration law drew enough people of different colors and faiths to fill nearly 11 city blocks Saturday evening at Linn Park in downtown Birmingham.
"You look like Alabama to me," Scott Douglas, head of the interfaith antipoverty group Greater Birmingham Ministries, and one of the rally organizers, told the crowd. "This will be a peaceful, nonviolent candlelight prayer march that there may be justice in Alabama without exclusion."
The interfaith vigil drew an estimated 2,500 people from across Alabama, and from other states, to protest what is considered the toughest immigration law in the country.
"We had an expectation of 1,000 and were praying for 1,800," said Philip Bowling, one of the organizers. "Looks like we exceeded both those marks."
The immigration law is set to take effect Sept. 1, although several groups have vowed to block it in court. Alabama is one of five states to recently pass laws designed to clamp down on illegal immigrants.
Organizers said they were concerned the new law would make criminals out of members of the faith community who provide transportation to church services or events, or otherwise help immigrants who turn out to be in the country illegally.
"I give out juice and cookies as a ministry," said Linda Hill, who is a chaplain for the ministry Grace By Day at Grace Episcopal Church in Woodlawn. "Am I supposed to ask for their identification before I can give them cookies? This law is hurtful and it's mean."
Instead of speeches, protesters heard prayers from Christian, Jewish and Islamic leaders, who called for social justice and compassion, and reminded leaders of the core political values of life and liberty for all.
The event got a late start as Linn Park swelled with people, mostly wearing white as organizers had requested.
It was a festive gathering, with people taking group pictures, chatting and smiling at each other. People stopped at several tables set up around the park to sign petitions calling for the repeal of the immigration law, known as HB56.
The crowd was mixed racially, and roughly half Latino. Organizers asked that no one carry protest signs; only banners noting the different denominations represented in the rally.
Before dusk, the marchers slowly filed out of Linn Park, walking 8-10 abreast down 20th Street North, cutting along Fifth Avenue to 22nd Street then looping back to the park along Eighth Avenue.
"Hope is alive. Hope is alive," one older white man said while watching the marchers pass.
As the last of the marchers were leaving the park on 20th Street, the front of the line had almost looped back to the other side of Linn Park on Eighth Avenue North.
Among the marchers was a group of Benedictine sisters, including several from out of state who were attending a program at a monastery in Cullman in preparation to take their final vows.
"We came out here to show our solidarity with the immigrants," said Sister Nancy Rose Gucwa of Clyde, Missouri. "I'm thrilled to see so many faiths represented here today."
Marchers and organizers said they were pleased by the size and diversity of the crowd at the march.
"It tells me there are a lot of people in solidarity on this issue," Bowling said. "To me, this is a most unique gathering, truly a combined interfaith effort."
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