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First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York: International Engagement

The First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York, has developed relationships and programs focused on Latin America.

Borders and Boundaries

“Borders & Boundaries” (B&B) was founded by a group of nine youth and adults from First Unitarian Church of Rochester who visited the U.S.-Mexico border in February 2007. The idea stemmed from a 1997 visit by then-parish minister, Rev. Richard Gilbert, who traveled as part of a delegation, and, upon his return, preached a sermon that sparked congregational interest. Over the years interest has grown, in part through the professional relationship of congregational member Kay Embry with the local migrant farm worker population.

The group traveled to the border region of Texas and Tamaulipas, Mexico, in February of 2007 as part of a border witness delegation of the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State (LRCNYS). Those from First Unitarian included Parish Co-Minister, Rev. Kaaren Anderson; Social Justice Coordinator, Tim Wilson; a parent; five high school-aged youth; and one 7th grader. The group adopted the name "Borders & Boundaries," based on observations from their trip of the difference between a human-created barrier (boundary) and a natural "line" which people freely cross back and forth on a daily basis (border).

The group is expanding to include religious education youth interested in making the 2009 border witness trip.

B&B plans to build a connection with a Mexican border community (colonia) in partnership with All Souls Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Brownsville, Texas, in the hopes of opening their resources to the colonia, to enable a community-centered building project with an emphasis on empowerment within the colonia.

It is B&B’s hope to create opportunities for meaningful, life-changing personal connections similar to the ones experienced by the delegation members when they visited the Mexican border. They believe these kinds of connections, if spread and acted upon, will truly make the greatest difference in the long run, and invite new members from within and outside the church to participate.

The congregation helps to financially support the youth trips. However, it has been through the efforts of the most recent group that a level of interest and awareness has become ongoing in church life. This awareness has been fostered through presentations to church groups, a 4-session educational program on border issues and NAFTA, letter-writing tables for issues related to expanding free trade, on-going fair-trade chocolate sales by B&B, and an upcoming fundraiser/awareness raiser called "Recreating Matamoros."

“Recreating Matamoros” was held from Saturday, April 5 - Sunday, April 6, 2008. The event strived to increase awareness about the lives of those living at the Mexico-U.S. border; church youth and friends lived in pallet-fenced compounds without electronic devices, flushable toilets or heat, in order to raise funds for an education building in Matamoros, Mexico.

In addition to continuing the bi-annual witness trips, First Unitarian of Rochester plans to continue to work with Fidel Velazquez on community projects. A possible byproduct of this partnership is that items made in the trades classes could be sold at the church with the profits going to support more efforts in Fidel Velazquez; another hope is to make the project a Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) JustWorks camp site.

Partnership With University of Rochester and “Shoulder to Shoulder” in Honduras

In 2006, First Unitarian Church selected a small nonprofit initiative organized at the Department of Family Medicine (DFM) at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Highland Hospital as recipient of its Greater Good Project. The children identified clean water as the project to fund for the communities of San Jose, San Marcos de la Sierra, in Intibuca, Honduras.

Since October 2003, a small number of faculty and physicians-in-training in DFM’s Global Health Program along with dentists, nurses, and medical students have been traveling to rural southwestern Honduras. Utilizing the U.S.-Honduran relationships built across more than a decade of work in Honduras, DFM partnered with the University of Cincinnati Department of Family Medicine's “Shoulder to Shoulder,” a 501c(3) . Twice each year, the health care professionals have been delivering medical and dental care while attempting to locate a community interested in developing a long-term relationship to improve the health of their communities.

Several First Unitarian Church members affiliated with the DFM identified the communities of rural San Jose as potential recipients for the Greater Good donations. Through guidance of Rev. Karen Andersen and information from church member, Barbara Gawinski, who had traveled to Honduras with the DFM, information spread through the religious education classes to help the children select the recipients of the Greater Good donation both locally and internationally. The children identified access to clean water as a priority for their donation. Thus began what was originally considered as a one-time donation of this Greater Good project.

Before the month was up, twenty church member and friends had identified themselves as curious about and interested in supporting more of the work and mission which the DFM had identified to the congregation. Throughout the year, leadership developed and subcommittees formed. Rev. Scott Tayler, co-minister, identified as the staff leadership while Barbara Gawinski and Mary Jane (MJ) Curry assumed co-leadership of the Honduras Project. Throughout the year, committees began to form in areas that would supplement the work of the DFM. The first to emerge was the connection between the children of both communities. The children of the church education classes wrote letter and sent photographs of themselves. Reverend Tayler traveled to Honduras with the DFM in the fall 2007 and delivered the children’s letters. He took photos of the Honduras children holding their new friends’ letters. When he returned to the religious education classes he described the progress of bringing water to the Honduran children and the implementation of various water filtration systems. The cultural exchange occurring through this educational process has inspired the children to learn more and do more for their international community.

To prepare prospective travelers to this third world site, the leadership committee designed criteria for church members who wanted to engage in service projects. Travelers are expected to attend Spanish language courses, Honduras Project (HP) meetings and serve on subcommittees to be a full participant locally and at the Honduran site. For individuals from very different and often privileged positions in society, cultural humility is a key component to master before enter a new and very different culture. Upon returning to the States, travelers are also expected to conduct presentations to the congregation on their experiences and learnings. To supplement adult and youth education and awareness, these presentations are offered to the congregation in general, the HP committee and the children’s classes.

Through the relationship with the DFM, the church has made a long-term commitment to continue to support the work in school and teacher education, health improvement through engineering, middle-school student scholarships, and business development through microfinancing. Our financial support continues to provide capital for water access and filtration, small housing construction to support U.S. presence on an extended basis, and health improvement through sanitation improvement. In doing so, the church will have the opportunity for one traveler on each of the trips to link the church committee’s projects with the DFM’s work. The hope is to continue supporting this community’s growth toward health improvement and financial independence. Within a generation the DFM hopes to then select another site and attend to a new community’s improvement projects.

For more information contact international @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Monday, April 30, 2012.

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