Las Posadas, Spanish for “the lodgings,” re-enacts the night when weary travelers Mary and Joseph attempted to find a place to stay and give birth to baby Jesus.
It’s a longtime tradition in Latin America, which takes place during nine days in December leading up to Christmas Eve. On Saturday, a group of 20 people in Billings took part in their own version of Las Posadas, to both recall the past and link it to the present-day immigration crisis.
The 90-minute event, which began and ended in front of Mary Queen of Peace Parish on Billings’ South Side, took walkers on a path that included stops at churches and other public locations. At various stops, volunteers voiced the roles of characters in an interfaith script that represented figures from Christianity, Judaism and Islam: Mary and Joseph, Sarah and Abraham, and Hagar and Ismael.
Carrying sheet music, the group also sang a series of traditional songs along the way, with lyrics that captured the conflicts faced by the characters. At times they sang to taped music, and at other moments, a Capella.
The second annual event was sponsored by Sanctuary Rising, a group of people from different faiths which seeks to spark a useful dialogue about the policies and practices tied to immigrants and refugees.
That dialogue is not about open borders, the Rev. Mike Mulberry, pastor of First Congregational Church, said at the start of the walk. It’s about “a more humane immigration policy going forward.”
Mulberry questioned how a person of faith could be on the other side of the issue at this time of year.
“Whether it’s Hanukkah or whether it’s Christmas, these are people seeking refuge from violence and war very often and economic oppression,” he said. “This is just a time where people of faith need to remember their story. As Joan Maruskin has said, the Bible is the ultimate immigration handbook.”
The first stop, at Living Faith Christian Fellowship, focused on pilgrims Abraham and Sarah, the faith ancestors, who sought a promised land and were refused hospitality by a king. The second stop told the story of Hagar, pregnant with her son, turned out by Abraham and Sarah.
“You shall be a great people,” one of the readers portraying the Angel told Hagar. “God has heard your cry. Hagar, this is the promise, in God you shall find refuge.”
The rest of the stops focused on the difficulties a modern-day Joseph and Mary faced when they sought refuge in Billings at Christmas. The first they knock on a door an ICE (U.S. Immigrant and Customs Enforcement) officer met them.
Joseph told the officer the couple have arrived for Mary’s deportation hearing. They are a simple hard-working couple who came to the country in search of a better life, Joseph said.
Mary told the officer that police arrested her for selling homemade tamales to support her husband and unborn child. She was held for many days until she could be turned over to ICE and will now be deported.
“Please, officer, don’t deport me, I’m pregnant and almost ready to give birth,” Mary said.
At the next stop, Joseph attempted to plead with an elected official to seek help for his wife. Adding a bit of political commentary, the actor, reading the words of the official's aide, told Joseph: “We don’t really know what will happen, but with the politics of scapegoating immigrants growing, we have to keep our constituents happy."
At the fifth stop on Saturday’s walk, at South Side Community Fellowship, the couple agreed they must not give up on the struggle.
“We carry with us the hope of generations to come, so we cannot give up,” Mary said. “Let us seek to stop deportations by seeking refuge in a house of worship.”
In the script, the pastor of a small church invited the couple in and offered them respite and a safe place. The tale also wove Herod and the Magi into the story.
It ended at South Park with a prayer for potential immigrants — from those seeking asylum, refuge and safety around the world to the ones who have been deported.
One of the participants, the Rev. Ken Crouch, retired Billings pastor and a former member of the Billings City Council, said people of faith should be concerned for those seeking to find a better life in a different country.
“It reminds us, through this kind of pilgrimage, that their problems as human beings are our problems, too,” Crouch said.
Herb Karst, of Billings, who joined the walk with his wife, Carol, said the couple is very passionate about the issue.
“I was a child of immigrants,” he said. “This could be my story 115 years ago.”
Karst's Ukrainian grandfather, who brought his family to the United States, left a difficult situation behind. The family wandered through Canada and the United States for 25 years before it finally settled in northern Montana where the members farmed for many years.
Karst said he was born to a relatively comfortable life. As farmers, his family wasn’t rich, but they were safe and happy.
“I didn’t deserve that, it was luck,” he said. “We have to more to help others find better lives.”