United Church of Christ
When many church members go to Mexico, it is often on a mission trip to build churches or houses, to preach in a local church, and to teach Sunday School. For eight young people (ages 18-25) in the United Church of Christ, “mission” took on a whole new meaning in August 2004.
A multiracial/multiethnic group, from the Puerto Rico and the Southern California/Nevada Conferences of the UCC, gathered for a week for intensive training on, and immersion in, environmental racism -- and how they, as people of faith, can work for justice.
The team studied and then saw in person the industrialization of the US-Mexico border since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); maquiladoras (factories which often use sweatshop labor) put pressure on border communities’ inadequate infrastructure and limited environmental resources. Meanwhile, the factories bring to the community air pollution, contamination of surface and ground water, and the transportation and dumping of toxic wastes. “...I noticed the interconnection between environmental injustices and globalization. Workers are exploited...human beings, as well as natural habitat (environment) suffer together,” writes team participant Omayra Torres Carrión (Puerto Rico Conference) in a reflection on the trip.
The group also visited with communities in various Native American reservations on both sides of the border, where similar challenges exist: poor health, water diversion (away from the reservations and into the cities), landfill dumping, and pollution of air, water, and land. Xiomary Rodríguez Fuentes, another team participant from the Puerto Rico Conference, believes, “Silence is not an option while confronting the toxic realities of our communities of color.... When we lift up our voices we must do it with a mentality of impact, strong commitment, and disruption of the status quo.”
The EJ Young Adult Team feels that their call to work for environmental justice includes a community’s right to know what happens in their environment, an amendment of NAFTA to ensure health and safety of workers and the environment, the right for communities to participate in planning, implementing, and monitoring any projects that will affect the life, public health, or environment of the community, and the clean up of toxics. “For now, our mission is to get people to get up from their nice comfortable church chairs and start making God’s word live in our lives,” explains Wilson Rivera González (Puerto Rico Conference).Leaders of the trip, Rev. Carlos Correa and Mr. Ken Brown, both staff for the United Church of Christ denominational offices, were energized by the success of the trip. They believe that key components of their success were: including training, education, as well as immersion as vital pieces of the experience; the small size of the team; young people’s leadership; and the cross-cultural/cross-conference partnership that formed.
Gabrielle Meury (Southern California/Nevada Conference) declares, “I knew as soon as I met the other members of the Environmental Justice Team that my life would be changed forever by this trip. Now I can see that not only will my future be altered by this remarkable group, but the future as the world as well.”