TIJUANA, Mexico — The Border Church, or La Iglesia Fronteriza, is not a building — or if it is, it has only one wall. Instead, it is a weekly, bilingual, interdenominational service held simultaneously on both sides of the US-Mexico border.
On the Tijuana side, under the city’s iconic white lighthouse, El Faro, a group of about 50 people gather each week. Many are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador fleeing gang violence or poverty. The church is a place where they come to pray, get help with asylum claims and find some 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.
Almost by definition, the people gathered in Tijuana are in a state of flux. Guillermo Navarrete, the church’s lay pastor, sometimes looks at him and sees invisible questions hanging over his head, he said. “What will happen? What about me?”
Through gaps in the wall, the other half of the congregation — Americans who join in solidarity or because of family connections in Mexico — is visible only in San Diego, surveyed by a camera mounted on a no-man’s land about a hundred feet away. High white towers. A barrier, made of rusted steel shafts, leads down the beach and into the Pacific Ocean.
Today, because of the distance that separates them, the two parts of the congregation mostly communicate through WhatsApp calls or Facebook Live. But when the group began holding irregular services in the early 2000s, the collection of fences and dead space and watchtowers we call “the wall” was just a fence, with spaces large enough to pass the sacrament.
Eventually, a new fence was installed with a wire-mesh barrier, and people on both sides could only exchange “pinky kisses” with the pads of their smallest fingers. About 50 yards from the first, a second fence was also installed on the US side, such that congregants and others visiting family and friends across the border can now barely see or hear each other, let alone touch.
“The body and blood of Christ became forbidden,” said Seth David Clark, the church’s pastoral director on the US side, who has written a book about the church.
As of a recent Sunday, a family from the Mexican state of Colima, which has been wracked by gang violence in recent years, had been in Tijuana for a month, staying at a shelter for migrants. They come to church every week, praying for help with their asylum claims. “We are Christians,” Maria Lourdes said, pointing to her husband and young adult children. “To God we always turn.”
Other congregations are deportees, who cannot legally return to the United States, who are drawn by a group of bilinguals and sometimes something deeper. “When I found the Border Church, I was looking for something to fill the void that was left behind by leaving the country that had been my home for the past 50 years,” said Robert Weaver, who came to the United States at age 6. He was deported after being caught stealing Sudafed, which can be used to make methamphetamine. He was expected to be sent to rehab. Instead, he was exiled.
Weaver’s charge was recently vacated, so he now lives in the United States, but he still occasionally comes to Mass in Mexico, where he helps with church activities. “Something magical happens here,” he said, “that fills your soul with joy.”
At the same time, Weaver said, it’s hard to see how a growing wall is further separating people. When he first started coming, it seemed like families who had been separated could still be families, “they had a chance to meet here at the border wall.” Now, “they can’t come right up to the border wall and have an intimate conversation, or even share a pink kiss.”
Every week, Pastor Navarrete sees families arriving who don’t know about the second fence, who have traveled long distances in anticipation of meeting loved ones. That Sunday, two sisters originally from Honduras were crying in the sand next to Tijuana. They came expecting to hug their mother, whom they hadn’t seen in years, but rarely showed that San Diego side. They want to be reunited with him in the United States, one sister said, but “we don’t have the money to pay the smugglers.”
That afternoon, the reading was from Psalm 23, in which God, disguised as a shepherd, leads his flock through the valley of the shadow of death. Near the end of the Navarrete service, congregants enter the wall and press against it, thrusting arms or shoulders into the distance and praying. In English and Spanish, the two sides called each other over the distance:
Lord, we stand here and make our confession.
Dios, aquí estamos y hacemos nuestra confesión.
Raising our hands against this wall we confess you.
Con nuestras manos en este muro te confesamos.
As the service ended, people on each side turned from the wall and toward each other to give the sign of peace. Instead of a handshake, they pressed the tips of their pinky fingers together.
La Paz de Cristo.
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