Thank you for the invitation to share with you my passion for social justice, for promoting UUism, and for helping bring about a more peaceful and interconnected world by encouraging people to cross all the borders that separate us. These borders include linguistic, cultural, socioeconomic, theological, and many others.
MY LIFE AS A UU
I have been a UU for over six years. I greatly envy those of you who are lifelong UUs. I wish I had stumbled upon it sooner when my kids were still little. As they say, better late than never. I actually came across UUism at a gathering with fellow Esperanto-speakers. I noticed that many of them were UUs. After some research the reason was crystal clear. The ideologies of both movements are so similar! They both encourage us to move beyond a culture of monolingualism and into a world community that is truly universal in its embrace of diversity and in its ability to speak, listen, covenant, and act as “We, the Peoples of the Earth” by crossing all the borders that separate us. At international Esperanto gatherings I can chat with people of over 100 countries with a language that only took me about six months to learn.
Even though I knew about UUism, I did not look for a UU church in my neighborhood because I doubted that my very conservative city would have one. One day I missed my turn as I was driving and I went into a small parking lot to turn around. Right in front of me I saw the sign “Summit UU Fellowship”. I couldn’t believe it! Imagine, I tried to make a U-turn and ended up making a 'UU turn.'
I attended services the following Sunday and I felt right at home. I went home and shared the happy news with my husband. I’m quoting his reply: “What’s so great about this church, is there a lot Mexicans in it?” Unfortunately the answer was negative. I simply said, “I think I was the only one…But give me some time and I will try to change that!”
That was the day that I began thinking of ways to help make my newfound faith even better.
As it turned out I had the opportunity to do that almost immediately. First UU Church of San Diego needed a coordinator to help the emerging congregation in Chula Vista find a place of their own. Until then the small group had been meeting in the media center of a public school. We found our home in a retail space, right next to a karate school and a tattoo parlor.
Our services are bilingual in Spanish with the sermon being simultaneously translated for congregants who prefer that language.
Before I continue, let me tell you a little about my life as an immigrant: I was born and raised in Mexico and crossed into the US without documents more than 30 years ago. Seven years ago I became an immigrant rights activist.
With my German married name, my height, and my relatively fair skin, blending into my predominantly White community has been very easy to do, until people notice my accent.
Interestingly enough, most people including Latinos, think my accent is European, or Russian.
For 25 years I was too busy raising four children, working, and going to school. I did not have time or energy to be concerned with the well-being of other immigrants in my community.
I had it made. I had legal status. I paid a heavy price for it, mind you. I paid with the currency of blood and tears… literally! Certainly other immigrants could find their own way to get their own legal status. They did not need my help for that! Or, did they?
So, what happened? What was it that changed my stance on this issue? You could say it was a calling, similar to a call to ministry. Something that happened about ten years ago compelled me to act in behalf of our immigrant sisters and brothers.
The call came from the founder of the Border Angels, Enrique Morones, an activist-maker who has been advocating for the humane and dignified treatment of all immigrants, documented or not, for several decades. He helped me find my voice so that I could put it to the service of others. I had to leave my shyness behind.
During one of his events I had the opportunity to hear stories, many of them. Heartbreaking, horrendous stories of people who have been in this country for much longer that I have been and that were still living in the shadows, still being exploited, humiliated, physically and emotionally hurt by slave-like working conditions.
One of the stories in particular sent me flying back to times gone by, to the first two years of my life in the US. A Mexican mom spoke to me about her daughter, dead at the hands of her US-American boyfriend, a cruel man who beat her almost daily with total impunity. She had no voice. He had threatened to kill her if she complained to anyone about her situation. Unfortunately it wasn't an idle threat.
I was shaken. I have been in that young lady’s shoes! In that moment I realized how fortunate I was! I thought, how can I possibly remain silent now? There is so much suffering going on! I felt I had the moral and ethical obligation to speak up, and to encourage other to speak up as well. I was one of the very few for whom there was an actual line for legalization. My future in the US was in the hands of my first husband who, out of guilt perhaps, decided to apply in my behalf and upon receipt of my green card even helped me enlist in the Navy after our divorce.
I was finally able to get reunited with my 5-year-old son Jorge. A bright little boy that I had not seen for almost two years. I now had the privilege to come and go across a border whenever I needed. That border that every single year claims the lives of hundreds of dreamers who, just like I did decades ago, search for the opportunities that no longer exist in our places of birth.
I’m fortunate because what took me only a couple of years to get, the coveted green card, takes others decades. For those who need it the most, there just isn’t one. Those who do not have a green card cannot travel to their loved ones in Mexico when they are needed most.
It is painful, it is wrong, it must be stopped. And as a Unitarian Universalist, I am sorry, but I will no longer remain silent, I will always have something to say about that!
I’m a firm believer in the Power of One. Four years ago I sent a short email to several Phoenix area UU churches inviting them to participate in the National Day of Action against the anti-immigrant law SB1070. Two people replied, a minister of one and a lay leader of another. The minister made a call to UUs around the US to come and join in the 6-mile march. Several hundreds of UUs, or LOVE people as we got to be known answered the call and what happened next I would not have believed if I hadn't been in the middle of it myself.
After fears that Immigration as a Moral Issue would be too divisive for UUs, it actually got voted almost unanimously at last year GA as our Congregational Study/Action Issue for next four years.
A month later another call came from our friends in Phoenix, this time it was more serious. We had to send a stronger message. Civil disobedience was being planned. How many UUs would come at their own expense and risk arrest and incarceration?
About a hundred filled out emergency information forms after taking the training and learning about the possible consequences of their decision. A third of the people arrested were UUs, several were ministers or seminarians. I was the first one to be taken in and therefore the one that was detained for the longest period of time. A transformative experience that we will never forget and that will certainly bind us together for many, many years!
It was that experience that moved my husband and me to build GaryMar, a small community center across the border with Mexico, in the city of Tijuana. The mission of GaryMar is to be a place of gathering, interacting with the fine people of Tijuana, learning together and reflecting on our shared experiences.
The funding for this project came from Gary’s parents. His mom was very supportive of our passion for social justice.
Over year ago, some UUs, including Jan Meslin, came down to Tijuana and we talked about how more UUs needed to come down and see experience for themselves what it is like.
One last partner group that I want to talk about is the DREAMers’ Moms. These women have children in the US that qualified for temporary legal status under the DREAM Act but they lack legal status themselves. This movement started in 2012 and it now has chapters in most states on the US. The moms have formed a network of support and stay in contact through social media. One of the chapter is located in Tijuana for the Dreamers’ Moms who have already been deported. Unlike the many of the ones in the US, these moms will not benefit by Obama’s immigration executive order. They have been raising their voices for many years but their voices have not been heard. We SSL with them.
I want to share some of the comments we have received from past participants have written will give you an idea of just how powerful their experiences were.
Barbara wrote: “For me, the entire weekend turned out to be a stunning exercise in opening oneself to humanity – with visible sorrow and joy; tenderness and cruelty; hospitality and desolation; wealth and poverty – side by side. Processing the emotions, feelings, images and thoughts will continue for some time to come. Without adequate words for description I somehow felt that I had received a blessing - of presence and connection.” (Barbara Leighton)
Connie wrote: “We were there to participate in the bi-national, interfaith communion service that has been conducted weekly at Friendship Park since 2008. This week, our trip’s chaplain, UU minister Rev. Lori Brandis from Thousand Oaks Fellowship, had been invited to officiate. We were told it was the first time a UU minister has led the service. It was a solemn moment, but afterwards we sang Spirit of Life in English and Spanish – in fact we did a lot of singing that weekend. How could we keep from singing?” (Connie Spearing)
“All of us had personal reasons for this pilgrimage, and we had we shared deeply spiritual reflections in the evenings. We struggled to understand the social and economic dynamics we were seeing and where our national responsibility begins and ends. We discussed whether we were being poverty tourists. We wanted to come as witnesses able to help by telling the stories of our new friends with compassion and dignity. I had grown up near the Border in Arizona in a time when nobody paid much attention to it. My first thought was that I had come full circle on my journey; I was back at the beginning, and the Border didn’t make any more sense to me now than it had in 1959 when we had ice cubes in Tucson but had to drink warm Coca-Cola in Nogales. Now I realize the journey wasn’t actually a circle at all – more like a spiral. Both the Border and I are on a different level now. You can’t help but notice a big fence in your backyard, but the Border still actually only exists for some people. For others, for goods and products, for money/capital, for industrial waste and pollution, it is all but invisible – even with its monstrous fence. When we returned to the U.S., using our privileges citizens able to afford a taxicab, The Border was less of a barrier than airport security or the Bay Bridge at rush hour. (Connie Spearing)
Maria wrote: “The spirituality in Tijuana of people helping people moved me close to tears. Hearing about Hugo Castro and the Tent City he organized to protest police harassment, and his goal to bring an International Forum on immigration to Tijuana. The injustice perpetrated against Hector must be corrected so that he can come home to his daughter. Jesus Hernandez (El Siete) trained by Micaela to run Casa Refugio Micaela, and the beautiful young woman running Casa Del Inmigrante, filled me with hope.
Padre Chava’s Desayunador touched me deeply. I was welcoming not the stranger, but the abuelitos, tios, primos y primas, amigos, and vecinos, and I felt a familial tie to them. Looking at the professionalism, as well as the love and care taken to make sure each person was served with compassion, was very empowering. Reverend Lora’s beautiful prayer at the Bi-national Communion Service, breaking down barriers (physical and of faith) between peoples was very meaningful for me, to the point of partaking in communion which I had not done since I was about 7 years old. The experiences and lessons from Tijuana are like ripples on a pond, never-ending, in my mind.” (Maria Ornelas)
Theresa wrote: “Driving back to San Diego, the air was clear but our minds were clouded with thoughts and images…trying to make sense of what we’d just seen and experienced…wondering how to improve such desperate conditions for so many. At the same time, we were amazed at the dedication of the many angels already helping in Tijuana.” (Theresa Fellman)
There are many angels doing amazing work in Tijuana. My husband and I have chosen these two because they have a special place in our hearts.
We chose the Deported Vets because we are definitely a military family, my husband retired from the Navy, I’m a Desert Storm vet. Our second child served in Iraq for five years in the Army, our youngest son and the father of our only granddaughter is a Seabee in the Navy. Our daughter chose to serve her country by serving another. She has been serving in Perú with the Peace Corps for almost three years.
We chose the Dreamers’ Moms because I know how painful it is to be separated from your children. I did not see my first child for two years after I came to the US. My mom raised him while I was away. Some of the women we know have several children in the US whom they haven’t seen in person for many years.
These are the people we formed a covenant group with three months ago. We meet on the second Saturday of every month and they look forward to our next gathering.
On Thanksgiving more than 50 of them had dinner with us! In a country where that day is a normal day, GaryMar became a small piece of the US for them. This is something we have been wanting to do for a long time. I have a feeling we just created a new holiday tradition in our family. =)
CALL TO ACTION
People often compare UU sermons to university lectures. I don't think that’s the case today. This is not a class! I'm not supposed to give you a homework assignment! But I think I will anyway…
There are people suffering all around us, many of them don't have a voice, for many reasons. They are afraid. Maybe they are undocumented, maybe they do not have formal schooling of haven't been here long enough to master the English language. Whatever the reason is, it does not matter. Your assignment is to find such a person and lend them your own voice, to brighten their day even in a small way. It’s the power of one, like the Starfish Story.
If your time is limited, write a letter to a detained migrant, or make a call to your legislators. If you don’t speak Spanish, your smile and your presence as an ally speaks volumes. If you don’t know where to start, buy Fair Trade items, listen to stories, tell others what you heard. If marches rallies are not your thing, bring water or snacks to the marchers. If you feel like you don’t know enough about the issue, attend town hall meetings or ask for resources. Why should we care about issues that don’t affect us directly? Because all forms of oppression impact all of us.
You may be surprised how much power each individual action can have.