Reflections from the Border

This email is part of our Voting Rights Campaign blog series. Today Jennifer Toth, Campaign Manager of Standing on the Side of Love, chats with Monica Dobbins and Bob LaVallee, seminary students from Meadville-Lombard Theological School. Jen, Monica & Bob just traveled to the U.S./Mexico border on a Border Trip sponsored by Standing on the Side of Love (SSL) and the UU College of Social Justice. With the mid-term elections just a week away, and just returning from their trip, they share what calls them to take action for justice. Click here to see more about the Campaign.

SSL: First, I would love to hear from you what called you to join this trip, Monica and Bob, what you hope you will get out of it, and where we go next.

Monica: I saw an announcement for the trip in a church newsletter, and saw that there were scholarships available for seminarians, so I thought I would apply! I’m in my first year at Meadville-Lombard Theological School and being a student, I knew I would need additional funds to pay for the trip, so I started a GoFundMe account. People all throughout my congregation, Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham chipped in, five or ten dollars here or there, and in the end, they paid for all my expenses. So I came to this journey with the support of my whole congregation, and I’m here really representing them.

Bob: I’m in my second year at Meadville-Lombard, and I have been realizing that I really needed to seek out an intentional experience of direct witness as part of my spiritual formation. And actually being here has been a lot more powerful than I thought it would be. Hearing from all the people affected by our broken immigration system has really clarified for me that I want to do community ministry.

SSL: Do you see parallels with any justice work you might already be involved with and the stories we have heard from people here on the border?

Monica: As part of my studies, I work eight hours a week with Greater Birmingham Ministries, an interfaith community organization. My project this fall is Project [V]ote, modeled on Project [C], which was a huge voter registration effort during the civil rights era. We go into low-income neighborhoods in Birmingham, and ask folks if they are registered to vote. We stand on street corners, go to farmers markets, even gas stations, and just talk to people about voting.

For me, the parallels are really clear: racism is never just about racism, it’s about money and jobs. I hear from people, “of course I’m not a racist”. But when we engage on immigration issues, I hear: how can our society provide jobs, education, housing? It gets tricky. I think it takes seeing what people are going through, and learning about the history and the system of economic injustice.

SSL: Monica, is there anything that has surprised you doing this work? What kind of challenges have you faced?

Monica: What I’ve realized is that we really have to gain people’s trust. Racial tensions are still really raw for many people in Alabama. I realize because I look out of place, I have just a few seconds to gain someone’s trust. I try to share with folks I might not be from this neighborhood, but I want to help break down barriers.

A challenge we have encountered is around people who have felonies on their record, who believe their voting rights have been taken away. However, in Alabama, not every felony conviction results in disenfranchisement, so we work with people to understand their rights.

SSL: Bob, can share you more about what you learned here on the border and how it ties together where you want to go with ministry?

Bob: As part of this trip, we heard from John Fife (one of the original leaders of the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980’s and a current vocal proponent today) about the failure of government to fix the immigration system. For me that is a reminder of how critical it is for people to vote. A lot of races this time around that will change the balance. Any hope we might have for immigration reform that is actually humane really depends on that. We have so many pieces of immigration policy that are broken, all up and down the system. It’s a long process, but we have to have people who are sympathetic and will do something.

And something I saw on this trip is Jesuit leaders, Presbyterian Ministers, and more, people of faith who really set the bar high for living their values. To me it was a bracing call to arms (so to speak).

SSL: Thank you so much for chatting. If there is one take-away you can share with people, what would it be?

Bob: It really has to be seen to be believed, just how screwed up things are here at the border. So come on a border trip yourself!

Monica: What I try to remember is that very few people would make this extremely dangerous journey if the reasons weren’t compelling. People generally do not want to leave their homes, they prefer to stay in their homes and communities. But if their homes are too dangerous, we have a moral obligation to hear their stories and provide them sanctuary.

Monica Dobbins is a first year seminary student at Meadville-Lombard who worships at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham, and lives with her spouse, her seven-year-old daughter, a handful of fish and a frog.

Bob LaVallee is a second year seminary student also at Meadville-Lombard living in Buffalo New York. He recently spent time in Kandahar, Afghanistan and help lay lead the worship services there, which led him realize his dream of going to seminary.

Jennifer Toth is the Campaign Manager of Standing on the Side of Love. Going on the trip to the U.S./Mexico border has been an extremely formative and profound experience for her, and she is still processing how to take back these experience and share them with the SSL community. One thing she knows for sure: We must have people who represent us who share our values and will vote on the side of love, at the local, state and federal level. Go vote this November 4th!