Border immersion 2011 opens eyes, ears, and hearts

February 24, 2011

During the January Intersession, PSR students took a challenging 11-day immersion course on the San Ysidro/Tijuana border, sponsored by the contextual education department and taught by professor Randi Walker.The course requires examining environmental conditions, learning about the history of U.S./Mexico border relations, and speaking with people living and working in this limnal space between poverty and abundance, danger and safety, exploitation and injustice. Those involved in the course learned about the reality of issues like HIV/AIDS, poverty, deportation, unemployment, sex trafficking, and environmental racism that are a part of daily life on the border.

The following are first-person reflections from PSR students who participated in this life-changing learning experience.

Andrew Hybl, MDiv student:  

I lived in San Diego for nearly six years and have been to Tijuana multiple times, so I wondered if the border immersion would teach me something new. I soon learned that witnessing poverty was one thing; reflecting on it was something else. The immersion experience forced me to reflect deeply on the whys and hows of what leads to poverty, economic disparity, and environmental devastation. Before taking the border immersion course I lacked compassion for issues outside my immediate context. My experiences in Mexico opened my eyes to ministry in ways that I had never imagined. I was struck by the compassion of countless individuals dedicating their lives to the betterment of their communities through social justice. The problems and struggles we were exposed to were immense, yet we found hope in the individuals who refused to make peace with oppression. May God bless them and their continued efforts.

Kit Evans, MDiv student:

Weeks after the immersion, what really stays with me are the testimonies we heard from people doing amazing work in Tijuana. The stories we heard allowed me a glimpse into the hardships and realities, but they also blessed me with the opportunity to see internalized light within those who have worked to change systemic oppressive realities into spaces, places, and lives where God’s love is shared. In situations where it would be easy to believe that God was not present in their lives, people have found light and hope within the midst of their suffering.

One of them was a man named Abraham at Las Memorias Center, an HIV/AIDS hospice. After contracting HIV and tuberculosis as an undocumented worker in the United States, he was deported to Mexico, leaving his wife and child behind in America. Without family, access to health care, or the ability to work, he likely would have died had it not been for the assistance of Las Memorias. Much healthier now, he runs the pharmacy at Las Memorias, where he studies and manages the medications for his community and teaches youth about safe sex. This new surrogate family and his relationship with God allowed him to nurture a new sense of living and being.

Another memorable voice was that of Yesenia, from the Chilpancingo Collectivo por Justicia y Anbiental, an organization that works for environmental justice in her community. For years, large companies dumped their toxins literally in her community’s backyard, affecting the environment and the health of adults and children. And after years of unjust treatment in unsafe working conditions, many women in Yesenia’s community had lost their jobs when maquiladoras (factories of U.S. and international companies built on the border in Mexico to take advantage of lower-wage workers) closed and moved to other countries. Yesenia and other women in the community wanted change. So they mobilized together and fought for the clean-up of a deserted factory that was spreading hazardous chemicals. During our talk she noted that she could not do any of this work without the help of God, who gives her strength.

Another remarkable figure we met during our immersion was Sister Antonia, who works with her order and with community and health care volunteers to feed, clothe, and provide medical care to tens of thousands of people a month. A large number of the people coming to receive food are men who have been deported from the U.S. or are attempting to cross the border.  Some are homeless and most are poor. When speaking with Sister Antonia it was clear to see that she had a strong love for God and for serving others. She noted that she tries to live the Beatitudes of Matthew 5, embodying them in her thoughts, words, and actions. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  

Gail Tompkins-Bischel, MDiv student, wrote an article for her local paper, "Jesus at the Mexico Border” about the immersion experience.  

Miak Siew, MDiv student, shared his reflections through photographs he took during the immersion. View the slide show on PSR’s flicker page.