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A Story of Walls, as Seen on a Visit to Centro Romero

by Mary Domb Mikkelson

     September 20 – 23, 2012 brought a special opportunity for Jake Joseph, A.J. Lacefield, Rachel Kirk, Nevan Strobelt-McCann, Hanna Hyatt, Casey Liston, Elizabeth Koebel, Ruthy Venegas and Julia LaBrell.  Members of CYYAM (Council for Youth and Young Adult ministries) (1) , they traveled from around the U.S. to the California border community of San Ysidro for a forum featuring the seemingly “odd couple” pairing of sexuality education and an immersion experience addressing border concerns in Tijuana, Mexico.  Incongruous?  Not at all.  As the students had recognized in requesting the program, trans-border sex trafficking is a major problem, one directly affecting their age group and necessitating awareness and concern on their part.

     Conducting the seminar were Waltrina N. Middleton, UCC’s Minister for Youth Advocacy and Leadership Formation, Ann L. Hanson, Minster for Sexuality Education and Justice and Dr. Carlos Correa Bernier, Director of Centro Romero, a border ministry of the United Church of Christ.

     The seminar started with an Our Whole Lives – Sexuality and Our Faith (OWL) (2)  program. Presented in a safe and supportive environment in which discussion is prized, the movie shown (Let’s Talk About Sex: The Film) stresses the values of self-worth, sexual health, responsibility, justice and inclusivity.  It also emphasizes the importance of talking and listening – for youth, parents, teachers and church families.  OWL’s goals are to empower youth to take charge of their own sexual health, and for adults to listen, talk and share.

     Listen in as those in attendance at Centro Romero discuss it:

     “Sexuality is internal, individual and healthy.”

     “What’s really important is that relationships are healthy.”

     “It’s the responsibility of society to accept sex as a ‘regular thing,’ so all can learn; of families, schools and churches to work together to make that learning possible.”

     “We need full, truthful information, not a Greek chorus of powerful voices saying, ‘No!  No!  No!’

     This led to a sometimes hilarious exchange about misinformation:

“The most trouble you get into comes from trusting your friends’ ‘facts’ (Mountain Dew prevents pregnancy?  Yeah, right!) and ‘BS’ing!”
“School sex education programs are too much about body parts, too little about sexuality.”
 “The more you know, the better equipped you are to handle things – sexuality, work, faith, the world.”
 “Where do adults get the idea that the less you know, the less likely you are to experiment?  It’s just the opposite!”

     The conversation continued over a great Mexican meal, ranging far and wide, moving on to incorporate the members’ activities and interests.  Hannah, for example, spoke of the blessing of growing up in the UCC.  Others spoke of working with transgender youth at church; of CYYAM encouraging sharing and communication – “congregationalism at its best;” of the body as an instrument – in dance and in creating music, and of church camp (important to all).  They are eager to make church relevant in the area of sexuality to their age group and share a love for General Synod.  Watch for them in Long Beach, where they hope to host a 5K Walk-Run to benefit their group and UCC’s Outdoor Ministries. 

     The next day it was time for stage two – immersion in the realities of life along the Mexican-U.S. border.   Three major issues – immigration, children and sex-trafficking were addressed.

     Much has been reported about “illegal immigration,” very little about the 50,000 or more unescorted children, children as young as six, who find their way across the border each year.  From Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, they travel north in the hopes of finding Mom or Dad.  What should be done with them?  Dump them back across the border?  Try to find their parents?  Seek foster homes?  None of these seem viable options.

     Sex trafficking has, in recent months, reached the consciousness of many Americans, though many still equate it primarily with Thailand.   Not so.  The U.S. is the 2nd largest market for trafficked women and children in the world (Germany is 1st), many of whom are shuttled through our local border gates and used as prostitutes and in pornography.   

     Led by Carlos Correa, the CYYAM immersion experience encapsulated a variety of experiences, from Las Americas Outlet Center and the border crossing to Albergue Las Memorias (Hostel of Memories) and lunch in Parque La Amistad (Friendship Park).  Participants observed “street trade” in Tijuana’s Zone of Tolerance and made a “Costco run” for groceries and school supplies for La Casa de los Pobres (House of the Poor).  They visited the makeshift colonias housing maquiladora workers (and the toxic waste-filled streets in which their children play) and ended the day at  “the beach”  – the former San Diego Friendship Park.

     The trip was, as Correa emphasized, a study in walls.

     The on the border (U.S. side) outlet center stop, for example, wasn’t for shopping but to observe, to count walls – those separating country from country, neighbor from neighbor.

     Crossing the border, which can take anywhere from minutes to hours, is to KNOW the power of walls – and fear and distrust – to divide people.  And to experience the daily frustration of Mexican citizens who cross the border to work.  Eight a.m. starting time?  Be in the crossing queue by three!  And be very sure your papers are in order.

     Las Memorias, a refuge for HIV and AIDS patients, seeks to open the walls between loved ones; Casa those erected by extreme poverty.  Many at Las Memorias, rejected by family and community, find love and dignity in the care of the home’s dedicated volunteers.  Run by a handful of Catholic nuns and a “joyfully intrepid” team of volunteers, Casa serves more than 300,000 hot meals a year, distributes 27,000 bags of groceries and provides free medical care for 20,000 people.  For colonia residents, who cannot afford bus fare to the city center, they deliver food, clothing, tarps and other necessities.

     Yet another wall – and a very high one – is erected on the streets and in Tijuana’s maquiladoras and shanty towns, where the exploitation of the helpless can be seen. Children, even very young children, are merchandise in the Zone of Tolerance, sold for sex, even as the police look on. To go there is to see and feel oppression…to die a little in the hopelessness of the helpless.

     In the colonias it’s the same – and yet a quite different story.  Here there are families, parents toiling long hours for low wages in the maquiladoras, children playing on ground and in water awash with toxic waste.  Their homes are make-do shacks made of whatever material comes to hand.  No running water, no electricity, no heat, very little hope.  Oh, about those 350 or so maquiladoras (manufacturing plants):  Among the companies represented are many of the world’s leading electronics firms.   Ever wonder where your TV was made?

     The tour’s penultimate wall, at La Playa de Tijuana (Tijuana Beach) is a barricade stretching across the beach and into the ocean.   Once families gathered here to reach hands across the border.  Now they are walled one from the other.

     Finally, of course, there was the return crossing back into the U.S.  Not so easy to leave those walls behind.

     It’s an intense, transformative journey.  The facts and figures presented are staggering – and heartbreaking.  Those immersed are unlikely to forget the experience, very likely to share it with others.  For the young people of CYYAM it was an invitation – and the inspiration – to become involved, to take the message back to their churches and schools, to break down a few walls.   

     Want to join them?  Interested in a similar journey?  Contact:

Dr. Carlos J. Correa Bernier
Associate Conference Minister, SCNC
Director, Centro Romero
173 W. Hall Avenue
San Ysidro, CA 92173
619-428-8700
619-428-8705(fax)
www.theromerocenter.com
correa@scncucc.org

     Want to know more about CYYAM?  Contact:
Waltrina Middleton
United Church of Christ
Minister for Youth Advocacy and Leadership Formation
Congregational Vitality and Discipleship/Local Church Ministries
middletonw@ucc.org
216-736-3871

________________________________________________________

(1) They are 13 to 30, youth and young adults joined in mission – and fun – across the UCC and the nation.  Launched as a task force by the 1985 General Synod, they became CYYAM two years later, a force to contend with almost immediately.  Challenged to use their council and their voice to “advocate, communicate, coordinate and network,” they work together and with other church leaders to make that voice heard, addressing issues of social justice and peace, sharing their vision and vitality, speaking out for their peers in the UCC and at General Synod, the church’s biennial “gathering of the clan.”   CYYAM is, as one member declared, a “state of being,” not just an organization!

(2) A joint program of the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association

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