The reality of border crossings took on a new meaning for Rev. Sammy Robles when he touched a portion of the heavy metal wall that separates Mexico and the United States.
“The memories are still fresh in my mind,” recalled Robles, 31, pastor of Arise Christian Church in Orlando, Fla. “There was a sense of intimidation and the recognition in that human-made wall. It seems that there was power and judgment connected to it. If only it could speak.”
Robles was among 12 young adults and youth who joined with about 60 other participants from the Disciples and United Church of Christ to gain new insights into immigration issues and border ministries at a unique four- day conference. Held Feb. 10-13, the conference, “Turning Walls into Tables,” took place at Iglesia Cristiana Casa De Oracion in San Diego, Calif. A one-day trip across the border into Tijuana, Mexico on Friday, Feb. 11 provided the opportunity to see first-hand the barriers that now divide the two countries. It is estimated that about 670 miles of fences, walls and spikes currently exist along the border.
The Tijuana trip also included stops at a number of ministries that help those who have been deported from the United States back to Mexico. The ministries provide food, health care and other basic needs.
“For the Church of Jesus Christ, understanding the so-called issue of immigration does not need to be complicated,” said David Vargas, president of the Division of Overseas Ministries/Global Ministries, whose office was one of the sponsors of the event. “For us, Disciples, it must be even simpler. If we are truly a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world, welcoming and honoring the foreigner and the stranger shall be at the core of our witness. “
“In our case, that exercise must begin by recognizing, acknowledging, welcoming and honoring the many “undocumented” children of God who are full members of our Disciples community of faith – many serving as deacons, elders and pastoral leaders, including a significant number of young adults – and who are part of the body of Christ and welcome to the Lord’s table as God has welcomed the rest of us,” added Vargas.
Katherine Bell, 21, from White Swan, Wash. is thankful to be among those who participated in the trip. For Bell, the experience added a new dimension to her understanding of immigration. Bell has spent many years at Yakama Christian Mission, a ministry of Disciples located in the Yakama Nation in central Washington State. About 55 percent of those living at Yakama are Native-American. Another 45 percent are Hispanic.
“The Hispanics we see are mostly from central Mexico,” said Bell. “They have worked their way up the California coast harvesting crops, and now have come to Oregon and Washington. Since I returned from the border conference trip I have talked to other young people about how big this issue is and about how sometimes we don’t want to think about immigrants in our area, particularly if they are undocumented.”
“We are grateful that so many young people were able to be with us on the trip,” said Rev. Jennifer Riggs, director of Refugee and Immigration Ministries within Disciples Home Missions, whose office was also a conference sponsor. “Immigration is an important issue for the future of our country and our church. We wanted to involve young people who will be the future leaders of a church that will be very different than it is today, because of immigration.”
A number of speakers at the conference addressed the complex issues that tie together the United States and Mexico, such as geography and immigration. Those speakers included Dr. Daisy Machado, dean of academic affairs and professor of Church History at Union Theological Seminary in New York City; Jen Smyers, associate director for Immigration and Refugee Policy with Church World Service and Dr. Carlos Correa Bernier, Director of Centro Romero in San Ysidro, Calif. Bernier led the trip into Tijuana.
Participants also were reminded that the United States benefits economically in many ways through its relationship with Mexico, not only through cheap labor, but also through the implementation of provisions such as NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Tijuana residents in the Chilpancingo community spoke to participants about ways the NAFTA agreement has led to a host of problems in their area, including more air pollution from trucks hauling cargo to low wages paid in the maquiladoras, foreign-owned factories where workers make an average wage of $56 a week.
Several workshops at the conference further explained the complexity of border issues, looking at such topics as economic justice, race, and hospitality. Three speakers from Mexico, Rev. Josue Martinez, Rev. Manual Tovar and Miguel Villa Panduro also shared their thoughts about the impact of immigration on their churches, families and community.
Youth and young adults led worship throughout the conference.
“The entire event left a huge impact on me,” said Sydney Merrill, 17, of Indianapolis, Ind., a member of Speedway Christian Church. “Living and growing up in the Midwest, I was very unaware and blind to the issues involving the border…Now that the conference has ended, I feel that I can do the most by sharing the word of what I learned during the conference. I have even written a report for one of my classes at school to help spread the word about the poverty, nonprofit organizations, deportation, and poor environmental conditions all revolving around the border.”
One outcome of the conference was a statement calling the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ, to among other things, be more welcoming of all migrants by learning more about the borderlands; provide humanitarian assistance to immigrants and speak out against economic practices that disrespect human life. To read a full review of the conference that includes the statement go to: http://globalministries.org/news/lac/statement-of-the-participants.html
The conference was jointly sponsored by the Disciples/UCC Global Ministries, Disciples Home Missions, the UCC Justice and Witness Ministries and Disciples Central Pastoral Office for Hispanic Ministries.
By Wanda Bryant Wills, Communication Ministries