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Confirmands from Seekonk, Blackstone Valley soak up Washington

March 5, 2011

“We saw a person living out of a box right near the White House. This was sad, knowing all of his worldly belongings were in this small area. While strolling through (Washington) D.C., I also noticed some people scavenging for food in nearby trash bins. It got me thinking how unfortunate they were to live outside with snow, and in extremely cold weather, and that they didn't know where their next meals were coming from.”
– Michael Pariseau, 15, Seekonk High sophomore

SEEKONK – During his particular February school vacation, Seekonk High freshman Mike Ferreira would have preferred playing video games at home, taking in a Rascal Flatts concert or heading to the movies with friends.
When a motor coach with Ferreira and 14 other confirmands pulled out of the Seekonk Congregational Church/United Church of Christ parking lot shortly after 1:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 18, destined for Washington D.C., he felt pained by the fact he couldn't do those things. He had made a decision to attend, and couldn't turn back.
Little did he know what was in store for him.
The comments from Ferreira’s schoolmate Michael Pariseau at the beginning of this article were uttered during a service last Sunday, and they explained barely an iota of what the group, with 10 chaperones, experienced during the five-day trip. It included some surrealistic scenes, such as their own re-enactment of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “March on Washington;” visits to several memorials and monuments, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Smithsonian
National Air and Space Museum, U.S. Supreme Court Building and Ford's
Theatre; and pitstops at the D.C. Central Kitchen and Walter Reed
Hospital.
Rev. Marilyn Ricci, the SCC/UCC's Associate Pastor, has taken previous
confirmation classes on excursions before – thrice to New Orleans to aid
in rebuilding and providing comfort following Hurricane Katrina, and
others to Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina.
“When I got to know these kids, beginning last September, I said to
myself, 'This is the group. I have to take them to D.C.!'” she stated.
“These kids are so thoughtful, so introspective. I thought they'd get so
much out of it.
“We had a speaker come in and talk to them about Martin Luther King, and
they were shown films about how he helped desegregate the cafeteria
counters, what Blacks had to put up with as they sat at those counters.
They'd be called names, and would have salt and pepper shook on their
heads.
“I told the group afterwards, 'In order for us to understand justice, we
have to see what injustice is.'”
As part of the class, Ricci called in Rev. Sharon Key, a pastor at Newman
Congregational in Rumford and expert on the 1960's “Peace Movement.” Key,
Ricci and the teens spent an entire October weekend discussing it and
other issues.
“I wanted Rev. Key to bridge the gap between justice and injustice, and
she did a terrific job with it,” Ricci offered.

**

The bus carrying the participants, hailing from throughout the Valley,
landed at Shalom Place, the church located on Calvert Street NW to be the
contingent's home for the coming days, just before 1 a.m., Saturday, Feb.
19. The youngsters, however, were eager and ready to go by 7.
They picked up the signs relating to the King Era, those they had
constructed back at Woodworth Hall, and began the re-enactment march. Some
read, “Equal Rights for Jobs,” “No U.S. Dough for Jim Crow” and “Freedom.”
“We attracted some attention from people passing by,” Pariseau said. “I
think I even heard a comment, 'That's true.' While we were marching, the
wind brewed up some, knocking us backwards and even breaking some signs
right in two! But we continued our march to the Lincoln Memorial.
“After looking at the World War II Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial was
ahead of us,” he added. “We stood at the top with our signs, showing them
every so often to the people on the top steps. We also took a look at Dr.
King's speech. He made interesting points that still seem to affect (our)
society today.”
Ricci – who headed the group with Rev. Daehler Hayes, husband of SCC
Pastor Joy Utter, church member and retired R.I. United Church of Christ
Conference Minister Emeritus – indicated they were afraid to make a
“'60s-style protest,” even as a mere exhibition, because park rangers had
informed them they needed a permit. Naturally, they didn't have one.
“We had less than 25 people, so we were safe,” she grinned.
Noted Ferreira: “I made a connection with those people. I know the
African-American community wanted their rights, and I discovered what they
were willing to go through to accomplish what they wanted – equality.”
After a lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – call the meal yet
one more “commonality” on this trek – the group walked to the Vietnam and
Korean War memorials. Among those not yet mentioned: Eugene Buker; Brian,
Tammy, Katharine and Mary O'Connor; Mike DelRosso; Tyler and Lauri
Warzycha; Paula Taylor; Victoria Alves; Kristin Brzozowy; Christopher and
Nicholas Chase; Molly Daigle; Carolina Hindle; Matthew Pariseau; Kasey and
Jacob Rossignol; Tara Tarvis; Joseph Vieira; and Dane Westberg.
Rev. Hayes called the Vietnam structure an “extraordinary tribute to the
men and women dead or missing in a war that became as much a part of the
civil rights movement started by Dr. King's march as any other issue of
the time.
“We learned that people continue to be identified as dead, and a star next
to their name is re-engraved as a cross, symbolic of the fact they had
been identified by the ongoing efforts of many to identify all the dead
soldiers,” he continued. “The Korean Memorial is an eerie place where
life-sized statues march forward on a battlefield, creating a surreal
sense of war.”

**

On Sunday morning, Feb. 20, the group traveled to another D.C. section for
a service at Plymouth United Church of Christ Congregational, one with a
mostly African-American membership.
Hayes met with old friend Rev. Grayland Hagler, and the former found it
interesting that a quiet protest was taking place inside; it concerned
Wal-Mart's efforts to build multiple stores in the D.C. area and the
disservice it would create within the community.
“Such pronounced evidence of social/political protest inside the doors of
a church … was something that captured the attention of many, and (those)
issues were discussed more than once during our journey,” Hayes stated.
The SCC visitors admitted they loved the service, complete with a piano
player, organist, drummer, two ministers and others who led the attendees
in prayer and song. One member of the SCC group indicated he'd never
forget one church-goer leading all in a dance around the sanctuary as part
of Health Ministries Sunday.
“The kids got to see how much people of color felt about our reenactment;
they were very touched,” Ricci noted. “An obvious excitement went through
the sanctuary as Daehler talked about the confirmands learning what
African-Americans had been through way back when.”
That afternoon provided, for several, a most memorable visit to the
Holocaust Museum, which depicted the systemic, state-sponsored persecution
and murder of about six million Jews, as well as the disabled, Poles,
Russians, Communists, Socialists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Masons and
homosexuals.
“It was so frightful, seeing all that injustice, and trying to figure out
how people could have done that,” said Seekonk High freshman Mary
O'Connor, 15. “I was also kind of embarrassed the United States could have
helped earlier but didn't.
“I will say it taught me there are a lot of bad things in the world, but
also good things,” she added. “As bad as things can get, you can
persevere. It will always get better.”

**

The contingent traveled on Monday first to Ford's Theatre, a replication
of the site where U.S. President and “freer of the slaves” Abraham Lincoln
was assassinated, then to the African-American Civil War Memorial and
Museum.
There, Hayes' friend and Museum Director, Dr. Frank Smith, educated all
about the site being the original Black YMCA, and how Langston Hughes and
Thurgood Marshall had played a substantial role in keeping it alive.
Smith also spoke about the institution of slavery from its founding to
Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation; and how African-Americans helped the
North to victory during the Civil War.
That evening at 5, the SCC group moved to the D.C. Central Kitchen, where
they all helped create 4,500 meals for nearby homeless people, and those
at other area shelters and soup kitchens.
Two men, both of whom were former federal inmates who successfully had
completed their re-entry into society, oriented their visitors/helpers to
kitchen operations. The kids and adults spent hours peeling apples,
potatoes, onions and celery.
“I cut up a lot of apples,” O'Connor chuckled. “You know, it wasn't that
sad, but instead kind of uplifting. You could see how hard people were
working, and how many were committed to doing what's right. I also learned
that you shouldn't ever give up on something if it seems important.”

**

The last planned visit of the week occurred Tuesday, Feb. 22; that's when
all traveled to Walter Reed Hospital to visit wounded soldiers, most
notably Army Sgt. Matt Chalifoux, a native Rhode Islander and Hayes'
“courageous neighbor.”
“We talked to Matt, who we've been praying for, and brought him gifts,”
said Joe Vieira, another SHS freshman. “We gave him a Boston Red Sox
shirt, and he loved it. You know, he wasn't shy at all. He actually
invited us to touch his (injured) leg, and he said he was lucky because
there were so many who had it worse than him.”
Matt Pariseau, Mike's twin brother and fellow SHS frosh, continued the story.
“It was amazing how open he was. He told us all about what happened, how a
homemade bomb blew up his truck, and it was heartbreaking to listen to.
When someone goes through something like that, you'd think he'd lose his
sense of humor, or want revenge. He didn't. He made us laugh.”
Apparently not for long.
“When the kids went downstairs, they sat in the lobby in absolute
silence,” Ricci mentioned. “Some were crying, but they were very
supportive of each other and their feelings. That night, they stayed up
until 5 a.m., just talking to each other and goofing around, just being
kids.
“That's one of my underlying themes in confirmation class: Bringing them
together,” she added. “I talked to Dane Westberg (a Dighton-Rehoboth High
sophomore), and he told me, 'I want to stay and see more! There's so much
more to experience.' That's when I knew I hit paydirt. The chemistry among
the kids was rock-solid. I didn't have to deal with any typical teen-age
angst. They showed so much support for each other. It was very
heartwarming.
“The kids also had such good 'people' chemistry. They understand how
differences in race, religion and other things are instrumental in their
faith. I want them to realize the church is there for them – today,
tomorrow and always.”
Westberg called the trip a “once-in-a-lifetime” education.
“Nobody had to tell me I had to go,” he explained. “The trip wasn't
mandatory, as two (confirmands) were unable to go. Hey, we are the church,
and I want to live that to the fullest. This was for all of us; we're
learning about what being members of the church will be like. It all
pertained to religion. We're going to have to act our religion out in
every aspect of our life, and this was just one more way to learn that.
“The most enlightening part was bonding with kids your own age,” he
continued. “We don't see each other all the time, only in church or
confirmation (sessions), so we don't see someone for who they are inside,
what they believe in. We experienced all this together, and we represented
our church the same way. I'm proud to have done this with these people,
and excited I learned so much.”

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