Written by Connie Larkman
Through the generosity of its members, the United Church of Christ is very much involved in offering compassion and care to displaced refugee children from Mexico and Central America. The denomination is working on the ground with congregations in the southern border states to meet early needs of the refugees, provide for the children as they are moved throughout all 50 states to be reunited with their families, and advocate to influence federal government funding and deportation policies.
"Because the situation is changing quickly, a coordinated response allows the UCC to be at the right place at the right time," said the Rev. Mary Schaller Blaufuss, of UCC Disaster Ministries. "One of the blessings of responding through your national church is that you can be in many places at the same time, making a significant difference."
With $31,500 already donated to the UCC's special appeal for Unaccompanied Child Refugees, funds are making their way to the Southwest Conference of the UCC and into congregations sheltering children in Arizona and to a detention center in Artesia, N.M. Through the appeal, the wider church will continue to support the Southwest Conference in this long-term response.
"Today and into the future, the UCC Southwest Conference is coordinating efforts across UCC conferences to assist congregations in responding with direct service, advocacy and community organizing efforts for immigrant rights with particular awareness to border issues, the Central American refugee children, and undocumented people who fear family separation due to deportation," Blaufuss said."
Through financial resources sent to Church World Service, one of the UCC's partner organizations, the UCC is providing legal assistance through Spanish-speaking legal staff and volunteers at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, religious services and support at the Artesia, N.M., detention facility, and funds to local partners to provide food, water, clothing, diapers, medical care, housing and bus tickets.
Soon, Blaufuss said, UCC members interested in personally offering their services will be able to work through a new coordinator for mission around immigration - a position the special appeal will help fund. This coordinator, based in the Southwest Conference, will be the point of contact for immigration justice, and will work with local congregations and partner organizations responding directly to children entering the U.S. in 2014 and beyond.
"Direct service volunteers and pilgrimage groups, advocacy and community organizing action will be coordinated through the UCC Southwest Conference's new Immigrant Justice Organizer," Blaufuss said. "This coordination will enable people to get personally engaged and to be of the most help for on-going ministries on the ground."
The Rev. John D. Vertigan, conference minister of the Indiana-Kentucky Conference of the UCC was very interested in that personal engagement. He is making a pilgrimage to Nogales, Ariz., this week with the Rev. Wendy Bruner and a few members of Zion UCC in South Bend, Ind., to witness the work being done to help the young, displaced refugees.
"We hope, on the one hand, to be impacted by the situation on the ground there in such a way that we can come home as advocates, story tellers, and a people of proclamation for justice and peace on the border," said Vertigan. "We hope, also, to have an impact on the people in the field there by bringing a witness of support, love, and care from the wider church."
"We are delighted and encouraged that a delegation from the Indiana-Kentucky Conference of the UCC is coming and look forward to providing them with some brokered interactions with people with whom we have been in ministry for more than 10 years," said the Rev. Delle McCormick, senior pastor of Rincon UCC, in Tucson, Ariz.
McCormick has long worked to educate people about the "push factors" that have caused the migration of so many, some the result of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. The former executive director of BorderLinks, a nonprofit organization in Arizona that focuses on cross-border relationships, was also a former missionary in Chiapas, Mexico, with the Rev. Tracy Hughes, Rincon UCC's minister of community outreach. They are putting an itinerary together for the Indiana group.
"Tracy and I saw firsthand how the economic and military policies of our country directly impacted the people with whom we ministered," said McCormick. "Mom-and-pop businesses closed, subsidies were cut on daily necessities, land was procured for cash crops that did not benefit people-made-poor, dams for hydroelectric power for the U.S. flooded land held by indigenous tribes, maquiladoras (assembly plants) were built to harvest both the cheap labor and abundant natural resources, and the young and most able were forced to abandon their land or sell it cheap, while they sought day labor jobs in larger cities. Ultimately, this phenomenon was repeated in Central American countries that were even more impoverished than Mexico.
"There has been throughout this mess an astonishingly creative and courageous witness by people of faith in this region," McCormick continued. "Our church has been in the lead on the immigration issue, with one member making trips to Mexico twice a week to take much-needed supplies and spiritual support. Two large groups have been trained in responding appropriately and effectively to the needs of the unaccompanied minors."
The Indiana delegation plans to learn as much as they can about the issue in just a few days. Offered the hospitality of another UCC congregation, they will stay at Good Shepherd UCC in Sahuarita, Ariz., from Tuesday, Aug. 5 to Thursday, Aug. 7, and hope to visit a detention center, the border, and CWS operations, and also meet with sanctuary movement leaders, and have conversation with workers in the field. Vertigan, who will blog about the experience, believes the trip will not only impact the lives of the group, but have an impact on those they meet, talk to and pray with along the way.
"We are heartbroken about the way these children are being treated and hope to see for ourselves so that we can lift up a voice for action," he said.
Action recommendations, including a special financial appeal to protect children, are posted online.