The sun was beating down, but each welcomed breeze brought an odor of raw sewage and chemicals. In this shanty town there is no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing. The area is divided by a deep, massive concrete canal, which collects runoff water polluted by the mostly American-owned manufacturing companies located at the top of the hill. Women and children crossed over the water on a makeshift, rickety bridge to get to their homes made of plywood and sheet metal. This is a neighborhood in Tijuana, Mexico, less than 30 minutes from the United States border.
About 65 attendees of General Synod 2013 witnessed the social injustices our nieghbors in Mexico live with everyday during the Border Immersion Experience on June 29, hosted by the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). The immersion experience was an intergenerational event, part of the service presence of the United Church of Christ in Long Beach.
"The reason we wanted to make this trip happen is because it really brings the idea home that justice is the real heart of the church and these sort of experiences that we have in the UCC and the ability to participate and be present with these sort of events is what helps us be the witness," said Jake Joseph, member of the CYYAM board and the outgoing Justice and Witness ministries board, and member in discernment of the Rocky Mountain Conference of the UCC. "There's the justice part and then there's the witness part, and witnessing is when you go out and be present and then turn around and speak."
Participants traveled by bus from the Long Beach Convention Center to Centro Romero, the UCC's center for education and social justice in San Ysidro, Calif. The Rev. Daniel Romero, retired UCC pastor for whom the Center was named, and the Rev. Carlos Correa, Centro Romero director, greeted the group and led the tour. Attendees first viewed the fence that stands as the dividing line on the U.S./Mexico border from the American side, and then crossed over into Tijuana. They visited a portion of the wall that is covered in white crosses, which represent the more than 400 immigrants who die every month trying to cross the border. The tour traveled into the shanty town, stopped for lunch at Tijuana's Friendship Park, and then went to the beach, where the border wall extends 250 feet into the ocean.
"I think it's really good to be here and see where the people live who produce the goods we purchase every day," said Kyler Dickie, a young adult from First Congregational Church of Sonoma in Sonoma, Calif. "It reminds us what the cost is of us purchasing something that we think is a good price. Knowing that product is being produced by someone who can't even afford housing or water, maybe I would be willing to pay more to know that person has a just wage and a comfortable life. It was good to stand there and be uncomfortable and be hot and sweaty and look at what they face every day."
"It always strikes me that we go look at this stuff and then we climb back into an air conditioned bus and tonight we are going to sleep in comfortable beds," added Tony Clark, member of Arlington Community Church in Kensington, Calif.
After the tour, participants returned to Centro Romero for dinner and theological reflection. Attendees were asked to share where they saw the presence or absence of God throughout the day. One young adult said she saw the presence of God in the fence's holes, which indicated to her that the walls will one day fall. Another saw the presence of God in the brightly-colored graffiti saw throughout the city. One young woman saw the absence of God in the women being exploited as prostitutes in downtown Tijuana. Romero encouraged participants to share these thoughts and stories with others as a way to help the people of Tijuana and to promote change.
"I would like to think of you as our little lamps, our lights, when you leave this place," said Romero. "Keep learning, keep growing."