The women — mostly Hispanic, many undocumented — do not expect to see Pope Francis during his U.S. visit. But they are walking to Washington anyway, holding posters of the pontiff and praying and singing in Spanish, quietly confident that their message of dignity and compassion for illegal immigrants echoes the pope’s call for people of all faiths to show mercy to the poor.
“We know the pope’s voice is very powerful. People don’t know how we suffer, but they listen to him,” said Silvia Gonzalez, 47, a housemaid from Seattle who immigrated illegally from Mexico 15 years ago. She said she is desperate to visit her ailing mother back home, but fears being unable to rejoin her children here.
“We come for a peaceful life, but some people don’t want us here,” Gonzalez said. “We need a solution.”
Gonzalez spoke as she trudged through the Baltimore suburb of Towson Saturday morning with about 100 other women from a dozen states. They were midway through a week-long, 100-mile pilgrimage that began last Tuesday outside a detention center in York, Pa., and will end in Washington’s McPherson Square on Tuesday evening.
The women’s placards and T-shirts were emblazoned with the broad slogan “dignity for migrants.” There was no mention of their undocumented status, a topic that has drawn vitriol in the public arena, especially as part of the 2016 Republican presidential race.
As they marched, the women were met with constant displays of support — in both middle-class suburbs and poor urban districts, whether passing college campuses, tidy green lawns or blocks of dilapidated and boarded-up rowhouses.
Drivers slowed and beeped encouragingly. Families waved from apartment balconies. People ran after the women and asked them to pose for photos. An elderly man looked up from his gardening and wished them well. A younger man leaning unsteadily outside a liquor store gave a grinning thumbs-up.
Only a handful of Hispanics were among the hundreds of onlookers they passed.
“What is your message?” asked George Kennedy, 40, a banker in Towson who was standing on his lawn as the women marched by. One of them spoke about keeping immigrant families from being separated.
Kennedy nodded, then ran inside for his iPhone and came back for a group portrait. “Good luck,” he said with a wave.
Several miles farther along the route, a disabled carpenter named Rufus Smith, 58, was waiting for a bus. Squinting at the women’s banners and signs, he nodded and said, “Good cause!” Smith said he held no grudge against immigrants. “They work from sunup to sundown, and they don’t take nobody’s job,” he told a reporter.
“God bless America,” he called after the group.
Each of the march participants has a dramatic personal tale to tell. One woman from Chicago was undergoing chemotherapy and had her head covered with a kerchief. Another wore the shoes she had saved since crossing the desert to enter the United States with her children. A third learned this week that her husband had just been detained back in Michigan and faces almost certain deportation.
The seven-day march, called “One Hundred Miles, One Hundred Women,” is being sponsored by several immigrant and labor advocacy groups, including the National Domestic Workers Alliance and We Belong Together. It has been tightly organized, with lunch breaks arranged at churches and overnight accommodations in motels and other churches. Food and travel funds have been donated by various groups.
Once in Washington, the women will walk to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast for blessings and prayers with clergy from various denominations, then continue downtown to McPherson Square for a public candlelight vigil.
On Saturday morning, the walk began at Goucher College, where the women met to stretch their muscles and fill their water bottles. They headed down Dulaney Valley Road, which gradually became York Road and then Greenmount Avenue. A rented truck followed slowly, pulling a portable toilet stall. Escorts with walkie-talkies kept the women in line and stopped them at every crosswalk; police periodically drove by to check on the group.
Mile after mile, the women sang, prayed, shared sun umbrellas and compared notes, stopping on occasion to nurse their blistered feet. Most had never met before, but they described similar lives and hardships that led them to join grass-roots groups and later to sign up for the pilgrimage to Washington — illegal flights from poverty; children in two countries; spouses detained or deported several times; precarious low-wage jobs; abuse by bosses or partners.
“We all carry stories in these backpacks. We want the world to see them and know what we go through,” said Esmeralda Dominguez, 33, a woman from Denver who is undergoing chemotherapy for bone cancer.
She said her husband, a restaurant cook from Mexico, was home taking care of their children and that she was worried he would be deported while she is away. “He has no papers, but he takes care of all of us,” Dominguez said. “He deserves respect and dignity.”
None of the women expressed regret about being in the United States illegally, only about the difficulties it had caused their families over the years. A middle-aged house cleaner from Connecticut said her oldest son was recently deported to Mexico and was desperate to come back. She said she missed him but would never think of leaving after living and working in this country for 25 years.
“I am part of this country, and I have always tried to be a good citizen,” the woman said as she sat on a rowhouse stoop, grimacing and rubbing her tired legs. “I don’t have papers, but I work hard, and I pay taxes. There are a lot of other women like me. We should have rights, too.”
The marchers were joined for several hours on Saturday by a half dozen students from a Jesuit high school in Baltimore and one of their teachers. As the day wore on, the group moved more slowly.
Finally, eight hours and nine miles after leaving Goucher, they reached their destination: a church in downtown Baltimore where they ate a hearty dinner, had a meeting with local African-American and immigrant leaders, and finally slept.
By midnight, another 50 women had arrived from across the country to join the final segments of the walk.
The next morning, the road awaited again.
Stay up to date on the papal visit. Sign up here to follow Washington Post stories about Pope Francis’s visit to the United States, and we’ll e-mail you as they’re published.