Day of the Dead: Transformative Ritual
The Day of the Dead (El Dia de Los Muertos) is not a Jewish holiday, but this year several of us from the Mishkan community joined with members of various Christian churches at a “Day of the Dead” ritual on Monday, November 1.
The traditional Mexican “Day of the Dead” is a holiday that can last two or more days and that, with song and dance and food and festivities, celebrates those who have died. There are rituals at cemeteries and huge parties in many towns. Hoping that the souls of the dead will hear their song and prayers moves people to pray and sing even more fervently.
The celebration that we joined on Monday was not aimed at reaching the souls of the dead but at reaching the heart of Philadelphia’s District Attorney, Seth Williams. Wearing “Day of the Dead” masks and carrying cardboard coffins painted with messages of “Bury Fear”, “End PARS” (Preliminary Arrest reporting System), and “End Secure Communities (a program linking the police to ICE)” that we placed at the door of the D.A.’s office, our group, organized by the New Sanctuary Movement,” made a clear statement.
Philadelphia is supposed to be a city that treats its new immigrants fairly and with respect. Having local police connect with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) is not reasonable treatment. Currently, if someone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant is stopped by the police for anything (a speeding ticket, a broken tail light on a car) or is put into contact with the police in any way (reporting a crime, helping a friend who has been hurt), his/her personal information will be entered into the ICE data bank. If it is found that the person has no legal documents, s/he may be detained or deported. Not surprisingly, anyone without adequate paperwork is terrified of the police and will rarely if ever report a crime. This is not only terrifying the entire community of new immigrants, but is making our community less safe. If people won’t report crimes out of fear, criminals are free to commit more crimes. Not only does this system make all of us less safe, it clearly leads to racial profiling. How could our community not join in this powerful ritual that embodied the protest against this unjust system?
It was an honor to be at this “Day of the Dead” event with members of our community. After leaving our coffins and black veils of mourning at the D.A.’s office, we declared our fear of the “police–ICE” collaboration buried, and we marched to City Hall to celebrate as a unified, strong community. Mishkan led the final song of the day, “Hineh Mah Tov”, “How good it is for brothers and sisters to form a community together.”
I believe fervently in the power of ritual to transform people and societies. When I take in the words of A.J. Heschel, I become clearer about my own expectations and hopes for what prayer can be. Heschel wrote, “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and ruin pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.”
The “Day of the Dead” ritual reminded me of the political power inherent within strong ritual, deep prayer. Within all of our prayer is the possibility for transformation. Our prayer can move us toward justice by embodying justice itself. On the “Day of the Dead”, I felt so moved. I hope that we can share many more moments of powerful ritual and transformative prayer, and that they will inspire us to work for a more just world.