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One Border. Two Countries. Many People. Come, Meet Your Neighbors!

by Mary Domb Mikkelson, Connecting Voices Editor

Why is it, I wondered, that strategic planning meetings – intense, internally-directed, and, most of all, indoors – tend to be convened when the beach beckons and the view outside the window features Mother Nature at her finest?   Being in southern California, of course, explains a lot, sunshine and swaying palms being the environmental norm.  But what of those attending, what pulls them inside for a day or a weekend?  What keeps them “glued” to their agenda?

     More specifically, what brought eleven people* – from as far away as Cleveland and St. Louis, to the Centro Romero Ministry Council Retreat in the border town of San Ysidro, CA October 7 and 8, 2011?  

     I know how I got there.   – it wasn’t the first time Conference Minister Felix Villanueva had urged me outside my comfort zone.  But – me working with a high-powered group of UCC movers and shakers?  I was honored, but…

     But what of the others?  What was their imperative?

     Of the essence, I learned, was a compelling need to let others in on a “go to the mountain top” experience – and to share their glimpse of “the promised land” beyond.

     Centro Romero (more formally the Daniel F. Romero Center for Border Ministries) is a ministry of the United Church of Christ (UCC), one of four Centers for Education and Social Transformation.  Its mission is the further understanding of migratory realities, primarily by providing education and “immersion experiences” in which day to day life in Mexico is experienced and the voices of those living it are heard – and in doing so transforming lives on both sides of the border.  Political, socio-economic and cultural forces are emphasized and participants reflect theologically on all they see and learn.  One recent student’s “graduation” statement encapsulated the experience poignantly:  “I am very grateful to God for the experience at Centro Romero.  It challenged and transformed me.  I travelled home with a heart broken open with hope.”


     So, okay, how were we – “the San Ysidro 11” and those who would expand our ranks – going to spread the word?

     That was the question of the day, make that of the weekend.  And, by the time we clocked out and headed home on the 8th, we had a plan in place, a plan pulling each of us into action.

     We looked early on at a couple of wearisome misconceptions (for lack of a better word), the too-prevalent fear of “the other” – those who are different from us – and the myopia that brands brown-skinned persons from Tijuana south to Argentina as interchangeable, “Mexicans” one and all, and “less than.”  Recognition of these stumbling blocks – and that Centro Romero is one the church’s better kept secrets, became both spark plug and spur for us.

     So how were we to become the change we wanted to see in the world?

     Ideas flowed fast and furious, from free-association dialoging onto sheets of paper which eventually lined the walls of the Center’s front room (formerly the sanctuary of a small neighborhood UCC church).  As fast we spouted ideas, Strategic Planning Coordinator Rev. Mary Scifres posted them, always in the right place, a not inconsiderable feat!

     Hmmmm…The next task loomed large – narrowing the multitude of possibilities down to a workable first four goals.  We became “dotters.”  Armed with markers, we dabbed vivid neon-hued spots next to those goals crying out for implementation.  There was amazing consensus.  The identified goals – “tell the story,” “build and maintain financial sustainability,” “build and maintain organizational sustainability” and “develop transforming programs to seek migratory and border justice” – were, unsurprisingly, interdependent.  Action steps for each were then hashed out, time frames suggested and volunteers recruited (with ease) to start the various balls rolling.

     “Telling the story” having been singled out as key to the success of the others, we next concentrated on the “hows” of getting the word out – of keeping already involved people in the fold, encouraging participation by those who have indicated interest and introducing the Centro Romero’s work to those who should be interested.  Identifying groups to target proved an enjoyable exercise.   Dividing into two teams, we “built” boats on paper (one became an ark, the other a flat-bottom vessel of the type used to rescue “boat people”) then “peopled” and propelled them. 

      Having worked on the ark, I’ll share its story here (between us and the rescue boat folks, we “covered the waterfront” – and the possibilities – nicely!):

Our Ark

     Our artist feverishly capturing our thoughts on paper, we set out to design an ark, a tebah…a sturdy vessel which, like the original, would have “rooms” – and room – for all its passengers.   Our boat was a symbol, a depiction of Centro Romero, the United Church of Christ’s border ministry in San Ysidro, California – and our dreams for it.   We were concerned not with gopher wood and precise cubit measurements but with doors that opened wide (yeah, I know, the original only had one) and sufficient ballast to keep our ship steady in turbulent seas.

     In “peopling” it, we started first with those groups already involved in the work of the Center – the various ministries,  past participants in the Center’s programs,  us (our newly-formed Council) and supporters on both sides of the Mexico-US border, among them churches, seminaries, collectivos, a medical school and groups working with a variety of related border issues.  Steering the craft from a perch atop it was Centro Romero’s Director, Associate Conference Minister Carlos Correa.

     Next came the “newbies,” those whose fledgling interest in the Center’s ministry needs nourishing, among them, interestingly, a maquiladora and the US Border Patrol.  Plenty of room on this ark, folks – come on aboard.

     Outside, floundering in the rough waters of the economy and political upheaval, we put those who should be involved, those we want to welcome.  The list grew long – young people, college students, women, ethnic groups, neighborhood organizations, anyone who has known discrimination, Latino/Latina churches, doctors, etc.

     Okay…we had our Ark, at least its frame.  Now, what about fuel?  That was the easy part – we would be propelled by injustice and our passion for correcting it, by love, by our need to serve our God and the people of our God.  We were on our way.

     As I watched our craft take shape I found myself thinking of past ocean voyages.  On one, I watched enthralled as, in extreme high seas, the doctor and nurse from my cruise ship braved the waters in a small tender then climbed the Jacob’s ladder of a Polish freighter to go to the aid of a badly injured sailor.  May, I thought, we be as fearless.  On another our ship stood sentinel over a floating corpse, ensuring that the man would be found and perhaps in burial be returned to his story.  May we be as faithful.   Yet another brought the adventure of listing wildly – at an ever increasing angle – when the ship’s ballast tanks failed and water couldn’t move from one side to the other.  Inching our way up the coast of Mexico, stopping in every port to put on water, we made our way home.  May we be as dogged.

     One thing we didn’t do was name our ark.  May I suggest “Ararat” – the resting place where Noah immediately planted a vineyard and started a new life?  May the vines we plant help others thrive.

     So how would we reach out to such a diversity of people and groups?  What tools should we use?  Again the ideas flowed.  Social media, of course – it goes where tradition fears to tread.  Start with Facebook and sally forth (keeping entries eye-catching and up-to-date).  Establish and update pages on such sites as www.americantowns.com – any place where the computer crowd ventures.  Write human interest articles bringing the people of Mexico, those immersion participants might meet, to vivid life.  Think about it – would not, say, “Ditched in the Desert:  A Coyote Victim’s Story” tempt you to read further?  Or, “Did Maria Build your TV?”  Or “Meet Senora Torres, Maquiladora Worker” (or “Maquiladora Slave,” depending on story slant)? 

     Other suggestions involved more conventional media, from local newspapers to radio and TV – and “don’t forget such ‘in-house’ possibilities as Connecting Voices and the SCNC (Southern California Nevada Conference) E-News.”

     And don’t forget, several people said, the need for networking – and evangelists.  Evangelists?  In the UCC?  Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?  Not at all, we concluded.  For starters, how about the hundreds of folks who have taken immersion trips with the Center?  What might be accomplished if we re-connected with them, involving them in outreach to others?   A high-priority item, it was decided, as was taking the story to people in person, a proposal which opened a whole new world of possibilities.

     On and on we went, aiming high – we envisioned making the name of Centro Romero a household word throughout the world.

     Our other goals were similarly explored and enhanced with start-up plans and willing volunteers (you’ll be hearing more about them in future articles!).  We were, indeed, on our way.

     Stay tuned to Connecting Voices for further developments!  


Note:  For additional information, to schedule an immersion experience, to volunteer, to donate (there’s a link on the homepage at http://www.theromerocenter.org) or simply to cheer us on, please contact Carlos Correa, correa@scncucc.org.
*Rev. Linda Jaramillo (Executive Minister, Justice & Witness Ministries), Rev. Dan Romero, Rev. Félix Villanueva (Conference Minister, SCNC), Rev. Carlos Correa (Associate Conference Minister for Border and Latino Ministries) , Keith Clark (Director of Finance, Administration & Communication, SCNC), Rev. Mary Scifres (United Methodist Pastor and Worship Specialist), Rev. Paul Kittlaus (Council Chair), Rev. PJ Banks-Anderson (Council Member), Rev. Jacquelyne Tyler (Council Member), Rev. Félix Ortiz (Area Executive; Latin America and the Caribbean; Global Ministries) Caribbean), Mary Domb Mikkelson (Council Member and Senior Editor, Connecting Voices Magazine)

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