Four Crosses: Visiting the Borderlands

By Alice Forsythe, First Congregational UCC, Portland, Oregon

A Samaritan leaving fresh clean water in the Sonoran desert

A Samaritan leaving fresh clean water in the Sonoran desert

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

Using Ethical Principles, Not Money, to Guide Our Use of Water

By Susan Lea Smith, First Congregational UCC, Salem, OR

bottled-waterQuestioning whether to continue serving bottled water at your church’s events? Not sure about how to respond to Nestle’s attempt to use Oregon spring water from the Columbia Gorge?  Outraged about our rivers being destroyed by corporate water pollution? Feeling guilty about your five minute shower?  Wondering how to protect enough water instream to keep aquatic ecosystems healthy?  Doubting that there will be sufficient water available for growing food given the push toward biofuel, tar sands, and other industrial water use?  Resolute in your conviction that everyone should have safe drinking water and adequate sanitation facilities? Interested in whether private corporations should be in charge of providing water and sanitation services?  Uncertain whether desalination is the right way to address increasing water scarcity caused by climate change.  If you use water in your daily life, read on!

This issue of “Rolling Justice” presents the ten fundamental principles of water justice declared by the Ecumenical Water Network, World Council of Churches (EWN-WCC).  EWN is the World Council of Churches’ program initiative, which advocates for water justice at international level and supports churches in water justice efforts at national and local levels.  EWN uses these principles, and the commentary explaining them, to guide its water justice program.

The “ten commandments” of water justice have recently been articulated in EWN’s theological foundation, which will be published, along with 17 reflections on water justice by theologians and water activists, in Smith, Suna, and Zacariah’s forthcoming book, Pilgrimage of Water Justice: A Theological Foundation for Faith Action (WCC 2016).  The theological foundation more fully explains the principles as well as discussing the realities and roots of water injustice, the Christian faith basis for water justice advocacy, and the role of faith communities in achieving water justice.  As you think about water, consider using the principles as a means to make decisions about water use and to bring your faith more deeply into everyday life.

Fundamental Principles of Water Justice (2015)


I. Ethical Management

Water justice requires ethical management of water, rather than management of water as an economic good.

II. Intergenerational Equity

Water justice requires that we manage water as a gift from God to be available for life-sustaining purposes to the current and all future generations.  We must not deplete groundwater reserves, we must protect the sustained availability of surface water, and we must not destroy the ability to use ground or surface water by polluting it.

III.    Protect Biodiversity and Aquatic Ecosystems

Water justice requires responsible human action to preserve biodiversity  and to maintain the ecological integrity and resilience of aquatic ecosystems.

IV. Assure universal access to water and sanitation

Water justice requires universal access to safe water and adequate sanitation.  Efforts to provide such access should give preference to the poor and marginalized.

V. Assure access to water by smallholders

Water justice requires that water be available for use by subsistence and smallholder farmers, herders, and fishers.

VI. Assure availability of water for priority uses

Water justice requires that three uses of water take precedence over any other water uses:  water for household uses; water for food provided by smallholder farmers, herders and fishers; and water to maintain aquatic ecosystem integrity and resilience.

VII. Democratic water governance

Water justice requires democratic governance of water.

VIII. Water is a common good

Water justice requires that water be considered a common good.   No compensable private rights in water should be created.

IX. Prevent economic exploitation of water

Water justice requires that use of water for commercial purposes be strictly regulated.  Economic exploitation of water is unethical. The principles explore the extent to which water marketing, commercial water bottling and consumption of bottled water, privitization of water services, and water pricing practices constitute economic exploitation of water.

X. Meet water stewardship responsibilities

Water users have profound stewardship responsibilities with respect to water that we are ethically bound to meet.  The principles suggest that we should avoid waste, pollution, alteration of natural flow, desalination of marine water, and groundwater use that leads to saltwater intrusion.


Susan Smith represents the national United Church of Christ on EWN’s advisory board and served as preliminary drafter of the principles.  She is available to meet with CPC congregations wishing to explore the principles and/or other water justice concerns in more detail.  Just e-mail her at

Churches Saving Creation

By Rev. Jim Ruyle, Hillsdale Community UCC, Portland, OR

habitat-restorationAs members of churches or other religious organizations, we care about environmental issues and want to do our part to protect creation. But the issues seem so huge, like global warming, that we may have difficulty identifying a special role that churches can play, other than just being good citizens, preaching about the issues, and doing our recycling. In fact, however, there is an issue in which churches are uniquely positioned to assume leadership, and it is an important one, right up there with global warming:

Scientists like E.O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist, tell us that at the rate we are destroying wildlife habitat, we will have lost as much as half of all plant and animal species by the end of this century, one-quarter by 2050. Tell that to your children and grandchildren. Besides animal lovers, this has implications for all humans because a large percent of the animals at risk are insects that pollinate or otherwise convert plant life to the food we eat. We take away their food by replacing native plants with foreign species, not just English ivy and Himalayan blackberry but much of our modern landscaping material including lawn grass. Insects can’t and won’t eat plant material that they did not evolve with over millions of years. To show the important role of insects, Wilson says that if all insects vanished, eventually all life would vanish, including humans. (See his book, “The Creation.”) Ask yourself what good it will do if we fix every other environmental problem but not this one.

So we need to restore wildlife habitat. But what’s that have to do with churches? Douglas Tallamy, in his popular book, “Bringing Nature Home,” tells us that after the loss of space to agriculture and cities, the remaining space available for restoring wildlife habitat is suburbia. (National and local preserves and parks, while important, do not by themselves contain enough space for this purpose.) What we need to do is encourage suburban landowners to restore habitat on their properties. This doesn’t mean landscaping exclusively with native plants, only making more room for them. And they’re just as beautiful as foreign plants.

This is where churches come in. Most churches either own outdoor space or associate with churches that do. These churches can demonstrate habitat restoration on their properties and offer education to their communities about habitat restoration and how to do it on their own properties. Organizations like the soil and water districts often use churches as teaching venues. Here neighbors can learn about the need for habitat restoration and how they can incorporate native plants in an attractive way in their own landscaping. Considering that church properties are scattered all across the country and the world, think of the impact churches could have if they and their national bodies seized this opportunity. Churches could take the lead in saving creation.