Over 10 years ago, Pastor John Fanestil started the Border Church, an open air, binational gathering that meets on the U.S-Mexico border between San Diego and Tijuana. The church not only provides a way for people from two countries to worship God together but also helps protect an opportunity for those who are separated to have some contact with their loved ones.
“People on the move is a dominant theme of the Bible,” Fanestil told Alan Lilienthal on a recent episode of the podcast, Only Here. “In some ways I think you can’t read the Bible accurately or honestly if you don’t understand it as a book about migrants. It’s about people who are being moved or are forced to move or are feeling called to move.”
The Border Church
The Border Church (La Iglesia Fronteriza) describes itself as “a nonsectarian Christian ministry centered in the celebration of open-table communion on the U.S.-Mexico border.” It takes place at the only spot in Southern California where people on either side of the border can legally have a minimal amount of physical contact, via the “pinky kiss.”
The church is led by Fanestil and Seth Clark on the U.S. side and by Guillermo Navarrete on the Mexican side. On the U.S. side of the wall, attendees meet at Friendship Park, located within California’s Border Field State Park. The area is patrolled by border agents, and access is restricted to the hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. While visitors can drive directly to Friendship Park during the summer, those who wish to attend the service during San Diego’s rainy season must hike almost 2 miles one-way in order to get to the border. The Mexican side of the border does not have these restrictions and is accessible at all times.
The border is actually composed of two walls about 30 feet high that have a “no man’s land” area between them. While it would not be difficult for someone to scale the wall, the area between them is highly monitored so that agents would know if anyone were there unlawfully. This space between the walls is where U.S. church attendees meet to join the service also being held on the Mexican side.
Fanestil told podcast host Alan Lilienthal that every week, he never really knows who border agents are actually going to allow into the zone between the walls. Some days, Fanestil is the only one allowed in. Because the Mexican side is not monitored as the U.S. side is, the service in Tijuana includes singing, preaching, prayer, and a meal. Fanestil helps Navarrete lead the service by means of a wireless microphone.
Communion concludes the service for those on the U.S. side, who only have a limited amount of time. Those on the Mexican side can stay longer and have a meal together.
How Did the Border Church Begin?
According to the website, Friends of Friendship Park, people have met the border at Friendship Park ever since 1849 at the end of the U.S-Mexico War. The site reports, “Until recently there were little more than symbolic markers of the international boundary at this location: low hanging ropes, barbed wire, or nothing at all.” But between 2009 and 2011, the Department of Homeland Security erected the wall that currently stands through which people can now barely touch each other with their fingertips.
Fanestil started the Border Church over 10 years ago. He served the first communion at the border in August 2008 around the time the government had claimed the land with plans to build a “bigger, more effective border fence.” His hope was that starting a church service at the border would help to preserve the park as a peaceful place for friends and family members to meet. While authorities pushed back and tried to prevent the church from meeting, the Border Church has remained. Fanestil said the conversations about what accessing the wall looks like are still ongoing.
Who Comes to the Border Church?
Undocumented immigrants in the U.S. tend to stay away from the border because they want to avoid getting in trouble with agents. But many immigrants who are in the States legally can’t leave the country. So they come to the Border Church to have some contact with their loved ones. Said Lilienthal, “Asylum applicants, refugees, lawful permanent residents or anyone whose immgration status is in flux have to follow special rules when it comes to traveling outside the country. Most people in that situation don’t want to wade through the extra paperwork it requires or risk traveling and then not being allowed back into the U.S.”
Fanestil said it’s normal for the meetings between people at the border to be extremely significant: “At least once a month we have people bring their small children and are introducing them to their grandparents through the fence. That’s a common occurrence….And we’ve also had many families across the years who have come long distances to say goodbye to dying loved ones. So for many people, a trip to Friendship Park can be a kind of a, a last final farewell.” Many times, people who meet at the border have not seen each other for years.
Church attendees on the Mexican side often include people who have been deported, but they also include those who are trying to immigrate to the U.S. and cannot afford visas. Many of these people are depressed and some are homeless. Navarrete told Lilienthal that those who end up in Tijuana because of being deported “came from the American dream. They lost everything…And come to Tijuana in a depression.” One of the ways the church serves people on the Mexican side is through a garden that provides free food to the public, providing a way for homeless people to get some nutrition.
Fanestil sees the Border Church as a way of obeying Jesus’ most basic instructions. He said, “Our scriptures call us to welcome the stranger, to treat our neighbor as we would like to be treated ourselves, to love God and to love our neighbor. These are some of our most fundamental commandments…If we say we love our neighbor, I feel we’re called to practice what we preach.”