A church draws families together across the US-Mexico border. A wall pushes them further apart.

TIJUANA, Mexico – The Border Church, or La Iglesia Fronteriza, is not a building – or if it is, it’s just a wall. Instead, it is a weekly, bilingual, interfaith service held simultaneously on both sides of the US-Mexico border.

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On the Tijuana side, under El Faro, the city’s iconic white lighthouse, a group of about 50 people gathers every week. Many are people from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador fleeing gang violence or poverty. The church is a place where they come to pray, to get help with asylum claims, and to find solidarity with others hoping to reach the United States. Others are deportees from America, often people who came from Mexico as children and were sent back as adults to a country they barely knew.

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A couple took to them while attending a service at The Border Church. (Erin Clark/Team Earth)

Almost by definition, the people gathered in Tijuana are in a state of flux. Guillermo Navarrete, the church’s lay priest, looks at them sometimes and sees invisible questions hanging over their heads, he said. “What will happen? What about me?”

Through gaps in the wall, the other half of the community — Americans who participate in solidarity or because of a family connection in Mexico — is just visible in San Diego, about a hundred feet away over no man’s land with cameras set up to watch. . tall white towers. The barrier, made up of a rusty steel shaft, runs down the beach and into the Pacific Ocean.

Today, due to the distance between them, the two halves of the community communicate mostly through WhatsApp or Facebook Live calls. But when the group first started holding irregular services in the early 2000s, the collection of fences and dead spaces and watchtowers we call “the wall” was just a fence, and spaces large enough to transfer the sacrament between them.

A family stands on the San Diego side of the border wall, looking into Tijuana. Visitors are kept about 50 feet back, preventing families and friends from touching. (Erin Clark/Team Earth)

Eventually, a new fence was installed with a wire mesh barrier, and people from both sides could only exchange “pink kisses” with the pads of their little fingers. A second fence was also installed on the US side, about 50 yards from the first, so that family members and others coming to meet family and friends across the border can barely see or hear each other, without comment on each other.

“The body and blood of Christ became contraband,” said Seth David Clark, the church’s US pastoral director, who has written a book about the church.

As of a recent Sunday, a family from the Mexican state of Colima, which has been besieged by gang violence in recent years, had been in Tijuana for a month, staying in a migrant shelter. They come to the church every week, praying for help with their asylum claim. “We are Christians,” said Maria Lourdes, gesturing towards her husband and young grown children. “We always turn to God.”

Guillermo Navarrete, the lay priest of the church, prayed for their congregation.

(Erin Clark/Team Earth)

The other communities are deportees, people who cannot legally return to the United States, people who attend a bilingual Mass and sometimes something deeper. “When I found Border Church, I was looking for something to fill that void left behind by leaving the country that had been my home for the past 50 years,” said Robert Vivar, who came to to the United States at the age of six. He was fired after he was caught stealing Sudafed, which can be used to make methamphetamine. He expected to be sent to rehab. Instead, he was expelled.

Vivar’s charge was recently dropped, so he now lives in the United States, but he sometimes attends Mass in Mexico, where he helps with church activities. “Something magical happens here,” he said, “that fills your spirit with joy.”

People were praying along the border wall. (Erin Clark/Team Earth)

At the same time, Vivar said, it’s hard to see how the growing wall has pulled people further apart. When he first started coming, he felt that families that had been separated could still remain families, thanks to the “opportunity for them to be able to meet here at the border wall.” Now, “They can’t just come right up to the border wall and have a personal conversation, or even share a pink kiss.”

Every week, Pastor Navarrete sees families who do not know about the second fence, who have traveled long distances hoping to meet their loved ones. That Sunday, two sisters originally from Honduras were crying in the sand on the side of Tijuana. They came hoping to hug their mother, whom they hadn’t seen in years, but she was barely visible on the San Diego side. They want to reunite with her in the United States, one sister said, but “we don’t have money to pay smugglers.”

A woman called while FaceTiming her family on the other side of the border wall. She did not know that she would no longer be able to contact her family at the wall that separates Tijuana from San Diego. (Erin Clark/Team Earth)

That evening, the reading was from Psalm 23, in which God, in the guise of a shepherd, leads through the valley of the shadow of death. Towards the end of Navarrete’s service, people filed to the wall and pressed up against him, pushing hands or shoulders into the gaps, and prayed. In English and Spanish, both sides called out to each other across the distance:

God, we stand here and confess.

God, but this is and it is necessary to acknowledge.

With our hands up against this wall we acknowledge you.

Con nuestras manos en este muro te confesamos.

When the service ended, the people turned to each side of the wall and towards each other to offer the sign of peace. Instead of shaking hands, they pressed the tips of their pinky fingers together.

The peace of Christ.

A man partially climbed up the Mexican side of the border wall for a photo opportunity in Tijuana. (Erin Clark/Team Earth)

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Credits
  • Reporters: Julian Benbow, Diti Kohli, Hanna Krueger, Emma Platoff, Annalisa Quinn, Jenna Russell, Mark Shanahan, Lissandra Villa Huerta
  • photographers: Erin Clark, Pat Greenhouse, Jessica Rinaldi, and Craig F. Walker
  • editor: Francis Storrs
  • Managing editor: Stacey Myers
  • Photo editors: William Greene and Leanne Burden Seidel
  • Video editor: Anush Elbakyan
  • Digital editor: Christina Prignano
  • Design: Ryan Huddle
  • Development: John Hancock
  • Copy editors: Carrie Simonelli, Michael Bailey, Marie Piard, and Ashlee Korlach
  • Home page strategy: Leah Becerra
  • Audience participation: Lauren Booker, Heather Ciras, Sadie Layher, Maddie Mortell, and Devin Smith
  • Newsletter: LaDonna LaGuerre
  • Quality assurance: Nalini Dokula
  • Further research: Chelsea Henderson and Jeremiah Manion

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