"Remember the photo of the earth taken from Apollo 13 in 1969? There was the whole earth and there were no borders. All borders are human-made."
The Rev. Felix Ortiz urged the 25 teens in his workshop Crossing Borders Wednesday morning to think about the world through that image of earth. "This earth belongs to God, and we need to enjoy it with all the people of creation."
Ortiz is the UCC and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Global Ministries executive for Latin America and the Caribbean, and he speaks with the authority of personal history. "I'm from Puerto Rico, a country that was invaded by the United States in 1898. Finally, we were granted U.S. citizenship in 1970," he said. "We still cannot vote for the President of the United States, but he can send our sons and daughters to war in places like Vietnam and Korea where the DMZ border between the two Koreas has stood for 52 years."
The National Youth Event delegates in the room were particularly interested in the U.S./Mexican border, which has been front-and-center in the current political debate. Ortiz pointed out that that line has fluctuated throughout the 19th century as America pushed its western border to the Pacific Ocean.
"What we have to remember is that there were people inhabiting that space before it was America," Ortiz said. "There was a movie, 'How the West Was Won.' To the native peoples, it should have been 'How the West Was Lost.' Or stolen. Borders are artificial lines that often divide a people rather than unite them."
To illustrate the issue of those who would risk everything to come to the United States, Ortiz held up a backpack and asked the group what each of them would put in it if he or she was setting out on such a journey. "What beloved thing would you bring?"
Water, of course. It would take three days to cross the Sonoran Desert; three gallons would be needed. Group members added family photos, letters, a favorite stuffed animal, a pet and "all the money you have in the world."
Another told of a group in Arizona that goes out into the desert with containers of water, food and maps that they set up in shelters with tall flags on them in hopes that they may save some lives. Ortiz noted that paramilitary groups sometimes target those shelters and added that more than 6,000 have died crossing the border.
Those that make it "live in fear of disclosure," he said. "They accept low wages and terrible working conditions. They accept jobs others don't want. They suffer language difficulties and separation from their families. Some of the comfort we enjoy comes from the suffering of the global community.
"Remember, above all, this is an issue of justice."