In preparation for Justice GA in Phoenix, Ariz., (June 20-24, 2012) the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) have jointly organized three Service Learning trips to the U.S.-Mexico border with our partner organization, BorderLinks. The most recent trip took place from April 20th – 23rd. In this blogpost trip participant Chris Rothbauer reflects on the various forms of oppression he observed, and the optimism that prevails, along the border. The BorderLinks service learning trips are made possible through the generous contributions of UUA and UUSC donors.

A major focus of my social justice work has been on anti-racism and anti-oppression. During my first year of seminary, I’ve worked at Fairness Campaign in Louisville, Kentucky, an anti-oppression organization which focuses on LGBT and race issues. I am chair of the Welcoming Congregation committee at my church. And I’ve marched in solidarity with the Egyptian people as they demanded their freedom. So, when I saw the UUA and UUSC co-sponsored BorderLinks trip advertised, it was a no-brainer that I should go and witness to the inhumane treatment of undocumented workers along the border. Little did I know how much the trip would challenge me.

It’s easy to read about border issues in abstract, but this trip has put a very human face on the people directly affected by the crisis on the border. I was able to talk with recently released detainees staying in Tucson, listen to deported migrants in Nogales, Mexico who are seeking medical attention after their arduous trip and trying to figure out what to do next, and take a pilgrimage through the Sonora Desert, retracing the steps of countless migrants who have travelled through, seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Unfortunately, some were not successful, and this point is driven home by a shrine to a deceased migrant.

Along the way, I loved that I was able to encounter the humanity in those I encountered. While having lunch in the home of a Mexican family, I realized the conditions some families have to endure everyday: Dirt floors, corrugated metal roofs with holes, and steps made out of old tires. Yet, this family was optimistic: Their daughter is going to college and they were rejoicing the birth of their first great-grandchild. And, along the way, I saw both smiles embracing life and frowns weary of the arduous nature of their trek. Yet I saw hope in both sets: A hope for a future that would somehow be easier. Even those who had just been deported expressed hope they could make the crossing again and rejoin their families.

It is my sincere belief that it is impossible to address one form of oppression without addressing every other. The oppression I witnessed against those on the border is intimately tied to racial, class, gender, and even LGBT issues (we met a transgendered migrant who is afraid to return to Mexico for her own safety). The women and men I met are each being oppressed at the systematic level for a variety of reasons. My previous experience in anti-racism and anti-oppression work gave me a solid foundation for recognizing the oppression at work in the lives of undocumented workers, but could not prepare me to experience, face-to-face, the oppression these people suffer just for the chance of a better life.

BIOGRAPHY: Chris Rothbauer is a first year MDiv student at Meadville Lombard Theological School. He has worked with anti-oppression agencies such as Fairness Campaign in Louisville, Kentucky, Showing Up for Racial Justice, and Amnesty International. Chris is a member of Clifton Universalist Unitarian Church in Louisville, Kentucky and will be the Intern Minister of First Unitarian Church in Louisville starting in the Fall of 2012.

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