By Alice Forsythe, First Congregational UCC, Portland, Oregon
I had the privilege of visiting the US/Mexico Borderlands with a small group from our church, First Congregational UCC in Portland. We were there to experience for ourselves this troubled region and carry the knowledge we gleaned back to our wider church community.
A local humanitarian group that meets at Good Shepherd UCC in Sahuarita, AZ, the Green Valley Samaritans, helped shape our itinerary. They generously host visiting groups such as ours, sharing their duties and hard-earned knowledge, but also asking that we go back home and pass the word about what many of them freely describe as a ‘militarized’ border.
The mission of Green Valley Samaritans is to prevent needless deaths in the Southern Arizona desert, and they go to great lengths to meet this goal. Many of them travel miles of bumpy, dusty back roads to make water drops in the desert, and check on existing water drops. The group tries to maintain a good rapport with the Border Patrol, some of whom attend Good Shepherd.
Our first morning we went on a three-mile desert memorial walk, which introduced us to the harshness of the Sonoran Desert. As we hiked the uneven and graveled path, we were often surrounded by thorny vegetation of all shapes and descriptions—a misstep could prove painful at the very least. We came to four stark gravesites, each marked by a crude, white iron cross and the word ‘descondido’, Spanish for unknown. It can also be a noun meaning ‘stranger.’ At four different times in 2009, the scattered bones of these four people had been found. The last gravesite bore one additional word, ‘adolescente’, meaning that a teenager, probably no older than fourteen, lie buried there. The surviving families, will never know their fate, or even where they lie. This is also likely true for many of the 2700 others that The Samaritans estimate have perished in this desert land over at least the past 15 years.
We made a couple of forays across the actual border into Nogales. The first occurred the second morning at a Jesuit shelter located within a hundred yards or less of the border crossing. It’s called El Comedor (Spanish for dining room—type the word into google, and it will present images of handsome dining room furniture.) Jesuit nuns, priests and social workers join with volunteers to provide not just food and basic medical care, but much needed listening and morale boosting, both for those who had been deported and for those still wanting to cross into the U.S. They attempt to warn the latter of the dangers that they face in the form of the vastly increased Border Patrol and the dangers of this desert land, but many have family in the U.S. and will not be dissuaded.
We were asked to carry our stories back to Portland. It’s a complicated issue, one that is not well served by the human habit of generalities. We individually study and research, often sharing with others of our group a link or reference. At different intervals we plan events for our wider church membership. We talk with each other about what we saw and felt.
Perhaps it starts with those four solitary crosses surrounded by cactus in one lonely patch of the Sonoran desert, but it can’t end there.
More information: Green Valley Samaritan website