My first trip to the US-Mexico border in 2004 was an ordinary experience. After finishing a grueling year-long organizing campaign in New Mexico, I took off for a road trip with a couple of friends. We toured around the state visiting the mountain forests of the Sierra Blanca, White Sands National Monument, and Roswell (famous for a UFO sighting in 1947). The final stop before returning to Albuquerque was Ciudad Juarez, Mexico just across the border from El Paso, Texas. I don’t remember much about the actual border crossing. I imagine we had our passports ready. We arrived to Juarez, parked the car, and spent a few hours as tourists visiting local shops and having lunch before heading back. As U.S. citizens with all the proper paperwork, we didn’t worry about what we might experience as we re-entered the U.S.
Eight years later, I visited a different part of the US-Mexico border. I journeyed to Phoenix, Arizona for what was billed “Justice GA,” our annual denominational assembly which that year was focused on the calls for justice in Arizona. Unitarian Universalists from the Tucson congregation offered a border trip to anyone who wanted to arrive early and spend a few day in Tucson and across the border in Nogales, Mexico. I learned about the work of No More Deaths / No Mas Muertes, a humanitarian organization dedicated to stopping the deaths of migrants in the Arizona desert. It is an official ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson. Recently, the work of No More Deaths has been under attack by the U.S. government. On January 18, four volunteers with No More Deaths were found guilty on all charges related to their efforts to provide life-saving humanitarian aid to migrants in the Arizona desert. Five aid workers still await trial.
Last week, I returned to the southern borderlands as part of the “Beyond the Call 3: Grounding and Growing our Prophetic Ministries” program. Our second retreat was held at a ranch 45 minutes south of Tucson and 30 minutes north of the US-Mexico border. One of the most impactful parts of the retreat for me was spending a couple of hours with three people from the UU congregation in Amado, Arizona, just 10 minutes north of the ranch where we had our retreat. The minister, their office manager, and a long-time member of the church hosted our group of about 25 people. We were there to bear witness to their stories.
For more than an hour, they shared reflections on what it has been like for each of them to try to live in faithful witness and action in their community. They shared stories of people – in one case a 13 year-old girl – showing up at the front door of their homes and the church lost, hungry, thirsty, and tired. They shared stories of day to day life attempting to travel through checkpoints and watching truckloads of concertina wire headed for the border. They shared stories of showing up at the port in Nogales to shut down the border crossing in protest of the treatment and separation of migrant families in U.S. Customs and Border Patrol custody. I found it especially moving to hear Barbara Lemmon, now in her 80s and formerly a resident of Waterbury, VT, share that providing help to migrants traveling through the area has now become her life’s work.
We also learned that the congregation had been in a months long discernment about changing their name from Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Green Valley in Amado to Borderlands Unitarian Universalist. Another sign of how their faith is calling them in new directions.
Living many hundreds of miles north of the US-Mexico border, it may seem as if our lives in Vermont are quite removed from the issues facing those in the southern borderlands. In our state, however, we do have hundreds of immigrants from Mexico and Central America who have traveled long distances to work on our dairy farms. There are people in our community who spend significant parts of the year in southwestern states and Mexico and who consider these parts of the country and world to be home. And while the militarization that is ramping up in the southern borderlands is happening at an alarming pace and scale, in our proximity to the northern border we are also subject to the impacts of increased militarization of our borders and the expanded reach of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). We are all connected and we are all impacted by the policies that control who can enter our country and how immigrants are treated once they arrive.
I am inspired by UCM members Abby Colihan and Jo Romano who left Vermont on February 1 to spend two weeks volunteering with Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas, a shelter for migrants who have recently entered the U.S.
In my own discernment about how to respond to the continuing moral crisis at the border and in our treatment of those migrating from Central American and Mexico, I have decided to join a weeklong interfaith pilgrimage to Honduras, March 18-25. I will be one of two ministers representing the UU College of Social Justice on this trip. The “Interfaith Root Causes of Migration Pilgrimage” is sponsored by SHARE El Salvador. During our time, we will visit with organizations working for the rights of migrants, accompany members of targeted Honduran communities, participate in an interfaith solidarity action, and reflect on the life of Oscar Romero. My hope is that I will be able to learn more about how political unrest, violence, and climate change are showing up in people’s lives and affecting migration. I hope to join in community with others who are inspired by their faith traditions to serve in witness and accompaniment. I hope to bring an open heart and mind and to bring back stories to share with you all and our broader community.
It is my faith in the power of our connections to heal division that calls me on this journey. It is my faith in the liberation of all people through moral struggle and resistance that calls me on this journey. It is my faith in our shared ministry – minister and congregation and all of us working together – that continues to call me on this journey.
In faith and love,