Pressing for Justice along the Border; Borderlinks Activists Work with the Poor at U.S.-Mexico Line

By Martinez, Demetria | National Catholic Reporter, March 4, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Pressing for Justice along the Border; Borderlinks Activists Work with the Poor at U.S.-Mexico Line


Martinez, Demetria, National Catholic Reporter


Borderlinks activists work with the poor at U.S.-Mexico line

TUCSON, Ariz. - Rick Ufford-Chase used to have to beg church activists to visit the U.S.-Mexico border.

The church delegations were more likely to be attracted to the higher-profile issues farther south in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

Although those countries continue to draw the concern and resources of religious human rights groups, some of the focus has changed to the border as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement debate and the new questions raised about border issues by the recent widely felt uprising in Mexico's southern state of Chiapas.

"Just this morning, Canada's largest denomination called," said the 29-year-old coordinator of the ecumenical organization Borderlinks.

Since 1989, about 1,000 People visited border areas as part of Borderlinks delegations, getting a firsthand look at human rights, land and labor issues, church activism, the environment and more. The two- to 10-day trips focus on the Arizona-Mexico region but have also extended into El Paso, Texas, Baja California and as far south as Hermosillo in Sonora, Mexico. Trips cost $40 dollars per person per day.

While the trips can take in an impressive amount of territory, wonderful natural vistas as well as shocking poverty and living conditions, Ufford-Chase wastes no time getting to the heart of his agenda.

"We are not a tourism office," he said. The three-story Ufford-Chase home also serves as offices for six staff members, whose stipends come from their various denominations, and dormitories for delegations ranging from union members to seminarians.

Scripture is part and parcel of each journey. The point of departure for daily group discussions is "how do we as a community redefine our values and lifestyles" so they are in keeping with gospel, said Ufford-Chase, a Presbyterian.

Also, how can North Americans avoid the temptation of paternalism in order to work as equals with the poor to press for change?

Without such questions at the forefront, he said, "it's like a zoo - looking at the people in poverty."

Two Catholic priests, Fr. Dick Sinner and Paulist Fr. Tom Tureman, participated in a recent Borderlinks trip.

"The border is the frontline, it's the gateway" for the church of the future, said Tureman, noting that Hispanics are expected to form the majority of the U.S. church sometime after the turn of the century.

Border churches are experiencing both the tragedy and richness of demographic change. Increasingly, families are separated by the border as members flee to the United States. On the other hand, the rich spirituality of Mexican Catholicism is adding new dimensions to the U.S. church experience, said Tureman, pastor of St. Cyril's in Tucson. "We on the border are feeling it first," he said.

The participants on a two-day trip late last year included two United Church of Christ ministers (husband and wife), a refugee advocate, a social services worker and a Honduran church leader.

The first day opened with a talk at the Borderlinks house by Yaqui Indian religious leader Jose Matus. The Yaquis have the only recognized Indian reservation in Mexico. They have tribal lands in Arizona and are struggling for federal recognition.

Matus described the prejudice he faced as a Mexican-American Indian growing up in Tucson. More recently, he said he has faced harassment from immigration officials when accompanying Yaqui dancers from Mexico for religious ceremonies in Arizona.

Matus heads the Arizona Border Rights Coalition, which documents border patrol abuses. Like many immigrant rights groups along the border, the coalition is often on the receiving end of anti-immigrant sentiment. "|What you're doing is really sick,'" Matus said, quoting calls the coalition has received.

The next stop was Southside Presbyterian Church.

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