On Saturday I was almost arrested for committing assault with a tortilla. Or was it my communion cup that Customs and Border Protection agents perceived to be a threat?
The setting was Friendship Park, a historic venue on the U.S.-Mexico border, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. For generations people from the two nations have met at this location to visit with friends and family through the border fence.
As part of its commitment to build 670 miles of double and triple barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, the Department of Homeland Security is building a second wall across Friendship Park. On December 23, 2008, Customs and Border Protection declared the site a construction zone. On January 6, 2009 CBP released final design plans for the park and announced that these plans would eliminate permanently all public access to this unique site.
We, who are aficionados of the park, were stunned by the announcement. We knew DHS had decided to build a wall across the park, and we knew Customs and Border Protection agents had concerns about drug-smuggling and illegal border-crossings at the location. Still, we had assumed that the totality of law enforcement strategy for Friendship Park would not be predicated on the illegal conduct of a few. After all, drugs and criminal activity are problems in thousands of parks across the United States, and law enforcement agencies don’t respond by simply shutting them down.
We had assumed that some accommodation would be made for the vast majority of visitors to the park, who respect and honor the park’s intended purpose. Locals don’t call it “Friendship Park” for nothing, after all. Surely, we thought, there must be some room for friendship in the complex formula of U.S. border policy.
As the news of our government’s plans to close the park sunk in, we began to wonder when CBP would begin to enforce the ban on public access. The answer, it turns out, was this past Saturday, February 21. And I guess I have the ignominious distinction of being the first U.S. citizen to be forcibly prevented from approaching the border fence at Friendship Park.
For the past eight months I have gone to Friendship Park each Sunday afternoon and served communion to people on both sides of the border fence. I have done so out of solidarity with the many people who meet their loved ones there – and as a protest against DHS plans to decimate the park. People have been breaking bread at this location for a long, long time. It seemed to me only fitting that Friendship Park should host the sacrament of communion, too.
This past week, we moved our communion celebration to Saturday. The reason for this was something that any pastor can understand: we wanted to make the choir happy. A fabulous choir, composed of singers from both countries, wanted to perform at Friendship Park. Most of the singers have standing obligations on Sunday, so they asked for the event to be held on Saturday. We were quick to oblige.
As we approached the border on Saturday, we were met by a wall of CBP officers, who told us we could go no further than about 45 feet from the border fence. The choir set up shop and sang the Faure Requiem, the music blasting from a sound system set up by our friends in Tijuana. The choir performed admirably, despite having to compete with whistles, shouts and bullhorn blasts from a small group of anti-immigrant protestors who tried to hi-jack the gathering. Their inimitable combination of ignorance, hatred and incivility was no match for the choir, which included a stunning soprano solo – the Pie Jesu, “at the feet of Jesus” – sung from a distance in Tijuana.
After the requiem and a few prayers, I shared a brief message with the congregation. I recalled the gospel story in which Jesus goes to a mountaintop with his closest disciples. After Jesus is transfigured in dazzling light, Peter proposes that they erect tents atop the mountain and simply stay put. I drew the analogy to the love that so many of us feel for the United States, the land our forebears called “a shining city on a hill.” But can a city on a hill still truly shine if it has walls built around it? This is the great temptation of patriotism – the love of country is so quickly turned into hostility toward “the other.” The desire to protect our own wealth and privilege from the intrusion of foreigners is akin to Peter’s desire to stay up on the mountaintop with Jesus. As the Bible story makes clear, God has other things in mind for Jesus and those who find in him a kindred spirit. Jesus came down off the mountaintop and set out on his journey to Jerusalem, resisting at every step along the way all human efforts to build walls between God and God’s people.
Having concluded my brief sermon, I then offered communion to the 150 or so who had gathered in the United States. I then turned to the south, intending to serve the many people who were assembled in Tijuana for this same purpose.
My way was blocked by a Border Patrol agent, who was determined to make an impression. “You don’t want to do this,” he shouted at me, unsnapping several compartments on his uniform – to handcuffs, I presume, or perhaps mace.
I told him that all I wanted to do was serve communion, and another agent nearby shouted, “Go to Tijuana if you want to serve communion. You’re supposed to be a man of God. Then obey the law!”
I decided that this was not the time to conduct a teach-in on the historic Christian practice of civil disobedience, and instead tried to step forward. “I just want to serve communion,” I said.
The lead agent stepped in front of me, holding out his hand. “If you bump into me,” he shouted, “you’ll be charged with assaulting an officer.”
I’ve since learned from a lawyer that my actions did not come anywhere near the threshold for constituting assault, but in the moment I didn’t know that this was the case.
“So if I try to walk past you, and I bump into you, I’ll be charged with assault?” I asked.
“That’s right,” he said.
“OK,” I replied, “then I guess you’ll have to arrest me, because I’m going to serve communion.”
“OK, I will,” he said. “Turn around and put your hands behind your back.”
I did as I was told – this may have been a tactical mistake on my part – and the lead agent then instructed a colleague to remove me from the premises. “Take him out of the park,” he said, “but don’t arrest him.”
In retrospect I should have asked if I was being detained, but it seemed an almost silly question. After all I was being dragged away by a man in uniform, wearing a gun.
As we climbed the hillside that overlooks the beach at Friendship Park, the agent and I began to exchange pleasantries. “If it weren’t for all this mess, it really would be a beautiful day, wouldn’t it?” I said.
“Yeah,” he replied. “What did you have to go and do all that for?”
“I didn’t mean any disrespect to you or your colleagues,” I explained. “Our problem isn’t with you guys, we know you are just following orders. Our problem is with the policy, with the decision by your higher-ups to shut down the park.”
“The ones who ruin it,” the agent replied, “are the bad guys who pass all kinds of crap through the fence.”
“I understand that,” I said, “but this is exactly the problem with all our border policies. We’ve got to figure out a better way to distinguish between the bad guys and the good guys.”
The agent shrugged.
We sat atop the mesa, the agent and I, looking down on the beach. Later I learned that another of my friends, Dan Watman, was also removed from the beach by Border Patrol. After that the CBP agents put up a solid wall in front of our group and threatened them with assault charges if they stepped forward. The leaders of our group decided to stand down.
I am pleased with the way we all held up under such difficult circumstances on Saturday – but two days later I am left with a bad taste in my mouth. I find it unpalatable that I was not permitted to serve communion. There is a young homeless man, Adrian, who lives on the beach right there in Tijuana. He is there every Sunday and I saw him this last Saturday, too. Was he less worthy of communion that day than I was? What about Oscar, who was deported eight months ago and is separated from his wife and children, still living in the United States? He was there, too, just looking for a little human contact. Had I been allowed to offer him a piece of tortilla and a swig of juice, would that have compromised our national security, or our nation’s nobler principles?
Questions like these point to a larger one: What is to become of our nation’s southern border? Is this strip of land – over 1,850 miles long – to be turned over to the Department of Homeland Security and converted into nothing more than a “zone of enforcement,” straddled by walls?
I cannot abide it. I cannot abide it because I know the border can be an altogether different place than this. Like millions of others whose lives and relationships straddle the international boundary, I know the border can be a place where human beings meet, a place of friendship, a place of communion.
And that’s why I’ll be going back to Friendship Park next Sunday afternoon, to try once more to serve communion.
You are welcome to join me. The particulars are below my signature.
DATE: Sunday, March 1, 2009
TIME: 2:30 meetup at entrance to Border Field State Park
PROGRAM: 30 minute hike to Friendship Park, communion
DIRECTIONS: Take Hwy 5 South, exit Dairy Mart Road, turn right (west) and follow the winding road to the entrance to the park.
INSTRUCTIONS: Bring documents verifying U.S. residence. Wear hiking boots.
In case you missed it, you can see the coverage in the Union-Tribune at this link. You can also keep up to date by joining the Friends of Friendship Park on Facebook. For Scott Bennett’s photos from the San Diego side, click here. For Alondra Almendra’s photos taken in Tijuana, click here.