Prayers and moments of silence were held in Main Plaza as hundreds gathered for a vigil in honor of families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Prayers and moments of silence were held in Main Plaza as hundreds gathered for a vigil in honor of families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The crowd that gathered in Main Plaza Sunday evening brought bold banners and evocative signs. They formed a circle in front of San Fernando Cathedral and joined in prayer and silent reflection for the plight of immigrant families separated at the border.

“In, silence we remember those in fear … in silence, we remember we are all human,” said Ann Helmke, community faith-based liaison for the City of San Antonio and director of Compassion San Antonio. Representatives from the Interfaith Welcome Coalition, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, and hundreds of individuals also attended the grassroots event. (Click through the photo gallery above for more images.)

Word of the peaceful Vigil for Humanity began spreading Tuesday when local educators Yon Hui Bell and Rachel Jennings started organizing it via Facebook and contacting local organizations that support immigrants in the community.

“We called it a vigil for humanity because I think a piece of our humanity was lost with this policy [to separate undocumented children and parents], and we wanted people to take the time to think about how we got here as a nation,” Bell said.

“I would also like it to be a time when we reflect and strengthen our common humanity before we lose any more of it. We are allowing politics and religion and fear to dehumanize one another, and ourselves, and we need to think about that.”

The vigil, which began just as the evening Catholic Mass in the cathedral let out, brought together people of all ages, creeds, ethnicities, and walks of life from across the city.

Maria Berriozábal, the first Latina to serve on City Council, said she came because she was hurting emotionally.

“When we are hurting, we just want to be together and pray together,” she said. “Families are hurting, children are hurting … one just doesn’t know what to do. We feel futility.”

Sergio Rodriguez, a Lutheran seminarian who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, said he came because the issue had been tugging at his heart. “Seeing how this issue has destroyed our culture of hospitality has crushed my soul,” he said. “Most importantly … we are all brothers and sisters in God’s family and we have to look at one another as family.”

Hundreds of “Families Belong Together” rallies are planned for June 30 across the U.S. as well as Puerto Rico, Canada, and Japan. An American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) grassroots group, People Power, will hold a rally that day in San Antonio’s Main Plaza.

At the vigil Sunday evening, a parishioner from St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, who preferred not to give her name, said she couldn’t wait for other rallies that are planned because feels helpless right now. Her longtime friend and fellow church-goer carried a poster she had made: “I do care. Really.”

“We wanted it to be sooner rather than later,” Jennings said. “Because we know the more organizing there is the better, but we just thought it was important to address it immediately.”

An hour earlier, just few miles away, another group gathered in front of the Bexar County Detention Center. They, too, carried banners and signs, but while the Vigil for Humanity was a quiet yet defiant protest, the Noise Demo planned by Cosecha Texas was intended to be loud and unruly.

Clanging on pots and pans, beating drums, and shouting into megaphones, the 30-40 or so people chanted, “Cops and borders, we don’t need ’em. What we want is total freedom!” 

They called out to the detained immigrants they assumed were being held inside. Some shouting was heard coming from within the jail.

Marcia Suárez is a local organizer for Cosecha, a national movement fighting for the “permanent protection, respect, and dignity of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.” The group is planning a seven-day national strike, similar to the “day without immigrants” protest last year, and conducts various activist campaigns around the country.

Suárez said the purpose of Sunday’s demonstration in San Antonio was to let the people who are incarcerated hear that there are people on the outside waiting and fighting for them. She said the group also planned to join the Vigil for Humanity later in the evening.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg attended the vigil with his son but did not speak to the crowd. Jan Olsen, a volunteer with the Interfaith Welcome Coalition, also came. She said her efforts to help in-transit immigrants at the local bus station is what “keeps her sane in this world.”

But the vigil wasn’t about speakers stirring people to action, she said. “It’s about people coming together and being inspired and being comforted by each other’s presence.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.