Video: Priest walking tall in journey to support human rights

Abbie Swanson

To get through his 200-mile trek from Boston to New Haven, Conn., former Catholic priest Jim Harney imagines the pain of Jesuit priest Ignacio Ellacuría before the Salvadoran army shot and killed him in 1989.

“The pain gets less when I imagine the bullet going through his head, or when I imagine how a refugee felt dying of thirst,” said Harney, who served at St. Jerome’s Church in North Weymouth, Mass.

Harney, 68, has dedicated most of his life to human rights.

Now he is spending the last months of his life walking from Boston to Connecticut to show solidarity with the 13 million illegal aliens who came here from Latin America.

Harney has a rare form of salivary gland cancer and only six months to a year to live, he said.

He traveled from Bangor, Maine, to Boston to begin the walk Tuesday. He walked to Jamaica Plain, Mass., that day and to Milton, Mass., the following day. From there, he is walking five miles a day until he reaches New Haven.

His route is taking him through Brockton, West Bridgewater, Lakeville and New Bedford.

Daniel Sanchez, a Boston-based activist from El Salvador walked with Harney from Milton to Randolph on Wednesday. Harney’s partner, Nancy Minott, a Maine school teacher, will join him next week from West Bridgewater to New Bedford.

He should reach New Bedford by Aug. 15, said Jeannette Huezo, a trip organizer from the nonprofit United for a Fair Economy.

Harney will spend several days in New Bedford where Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids detained and separated many women and children last year.

He expects to complete the 135 miles to New Haven by Sept. 12.

“A month ago I could walk 22 miles in eight hours,” Harney said, but the cancer, diagnosed in February 2007 has slowed him down. Even with the 10 milligram tablets of pain killer twice a day, the pain can be excruciating, Harney said. It’s hard to keep his left eye open, above where a cancerous tumor was removed near his jaw.

“I’m in the process of dying. I want to use my last days to be in solidarity with those who are traveling to the U.S. to find work and who are risking their lives,” Harney said.

His pain is meshed with the pain Central Americans feel every day, Harney said.

“There is bloodletting. Some people are dying, losing their arms and legs. Some are raped,” said Harney, who twice hitchhiked from the Northeast to Central America, documenting the people he met in photos and videos.

“I had been trying to be in touch with the excluded and I did that through photography,” Harney said.

Harney became a Catholic priest in 1968. He found inspiration in the people he met, including Roman Catholic priest and civil rights activist Philip Berrigan. As a member of the Milwaukee 14, he served three months in jail for removing 10,000 draft folders from a Milwaukee draft board. He was 28 then.

In 1973, he left the priesthood because the church would not ordain women as priests.

He founded a nonprofit group called Posibilidad to educate others about the plight of the illegal aliens. He lived on less than $3,000 a year, he said, making ends meet as a dock worker, cab driver and printer.

Now, Harney wants to use his last days to speak out. “The thing is, I want to laugh at death,” he said.

Harney said he hopes his journey will broaden his imagination. “It’s a spiritual journey, a healing journey. Healing in the large social context that tracks the lives of others.”

Abbie Swanson may be reached