Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Border Patrol Halts Communion at Friendship Park as Border Wall Construction Looms

By John Fanestil

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.


John Fanestil

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.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


The following release was issued by the San Diego-based Foundation for Change. Every Sunday since last summer, John Fanestil, the Foundation's Executive Director, has been offering communion to people on both sides of the wall at Friendship Park. To learn more about the Foundation for Change, visit their website here.

SAN DIEGO, CA – On Saturday, February 21, United States Border Patrol (USBP) agents forcibly denied U.S. citizens access to Friendship Park, an historic plaza overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the U.S.-Mexico border. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has announced their intent to impose a permanent ban on all public access to the historic location.

At noon on Saturday a group of 150 park patrons – local church choir members, university students, human rights advocates and environmentalists – gathered at Friendship Park to hold a peaceful, ecumenical service and concert. They were joined by friends from Tijuana, including members of the Tijuana Opera, who were waiting to participate on the other side of the fence. Upon their arrival, Border Patrol agents with rubber-bullet guns and tear-gas canisters at the ready forcibly pushed the group back and threatened to arrest any who would approach the fence.

The group then performed the Faure Requiem Mass in harmony with the Mexican singers and musicians. Rev. John Fanestil – a United Methodist Pastor and Executive Director of the San Diego-based Foundation for Change – then celebrated communion with a crowd of over 150 on the U.S. side of the border. When he attempted to distribute the communion elements to the crowd in Tijuana, Fanestil’s movements were blocked by a Border Patrol agent and he was told that one more step forward would result in his being charged with assault. Fanestil, communion elements in hand, was then told to turn around and place his hands behind his back. He was then forcibly removed from the area and later released without charge.

Also detained at Saturday’s event was Daniel Watman, organizer of the community-based organization Border Meetup. For years Watman’s group has hosted social events at Friendship Park, ranging from yoga classes and salsa dancing lessons to beach clean-ups in coalition with environmental organizations from San Diego and Tijuana like San Diego Coastkeeper and Proyecto Fronterizo de EducaciĆ³n del Medio Ambiente. As part of Saturday’s program, Watman and other participants had intended to join with counterparts from Grupo Ecologista de Tijuana in restoring Friendship Park’s bi-national garden, which has been uprooted on the U.S.
side by Border Patrol.

"Saturday, we followed in the footsteps of thousands over the decades who have visited Friendship Park for its intended purpose, international friendship," said the Rev. Fanestil. "Now, U.S. citizens are being walled off from a part of their own country and the building of friendships with our Mexican neighbors is being criminalized."

Dedicated on August 18, 1971, by First Lady Pat Nixon, Friendship Park is an historic, binational plaza that encircles a marble monument marking the initial boundary point separating the U.S. and Mexico since 1848. The plaza is within California’s Border Field State Park and a part of a larger ecological habitat, the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve. After planting a tree to inaugurate the plaza in 1971, Mrs. Nixon ordered her security guards to cut the barbed wire separating her from a cheering crowd in Mexico and stated, "I hate to see a fence anywhere."

On December 23, 2008, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) declared Friendship Park a construction zone and announced a ban on all public access. On January 6, 2009 CBP released final design plans for the park and revealed their plans to prohibit permanently all public access to this unique site.

DHS plans for Friendship Park are part of a larger project which saw the Bush Administration waive dozens of environmental laws and regulations in order to facilitate the accelerated construction of double and triple barriers along the length of the 1850-mile U.S.-Mexico border. To date, over 600 miles of supplemental border wall have been completed, in some locations as far as two miles north of the first fence marking the international boundary. DHS officials have made known their desire to claim the lands along the border as a “zone of enforcement,” in effect creating a “no man’s land” that cuts across private property, public lands, national parks, sensitive wildlife refuges, sacred lands and historic cultural sites.

The San Diego-based coalition, “Friends of Friendship Park, includes over 30 community organizations dedicated to preserving the park. Local efforts have been supported by legislators ranging from Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi to San Diego City Council members. On February 4, members of Congress Susan Davis and Bob Filner, along with State Senators Christine Kehoe and Denise Ducheny, and State Assemblymembers Mary Salas and Lori SaldaƱa, sent a joint letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asking her to halt to construction at the site pending further review.

The effort to save Friendship Park is a part of a larger movement being led by citizens and legislators from Brownsville, Texas, through New Mexico and Arizona to San Diego, California advocating a moratorium on border wall construction, pending further review. On February 10, eight members of Congress from border districts sent a letter to President Obama requesting a halt to construction on the border.

"In an era of advanced technologies, the border fence is an antiquated structure that has torn our communities apart and damaged our cross-border relationships,” the legislators wrote.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Border Wall Threatens Endangered Ocelot Kitten in South Texas: Future Uncertain as Construction Nears Fragile Habitat

Three of the nation's most respected environmental organizations - the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Environmental Defense Fund - have issued the following press release condemning the tremendous environmental damage that the border wall will have on the endangered ocelot:

BROWNSVILLE , TEXAS —The first ocelot kitten seen in Texas in more than ten years has been photographed at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in Cameron County, Texas. Ocelots were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1972, and there are believed to be less than 100 left in the United States .

The birth of an ocelot should be a hopeful sign of recovery, but it is marred by the looming onset of border wall construction along the U.S.-Mexico border in Cameron County , which puts this kitten’s future – and the future of the entire Texas ocelot population – in grave jeopardy.

“As we’ve seen with the border walls in California and Arizona , human beings can easily climb over walls with ladders or tunnel under them with a shovel,” said Jim Chapman, chair of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club Group. “Ocelots and other wildlife are stopped dead in their tracks.”

Ocelots once lived in dense brush habitat throughout Mexico and the southern U.S., but farms, roads, fences, and housing developments have destroyed and fragmented their habitat along the Rio Grande, pushing populations in the two nations farther apart, and further isolating the Texas cats. Isolation weakens the gene pool and makes the population susceptible to catastrophic declines due to inbreeding or disease.

In 1979 a collaborative effort to bolster the ocelot population of South Texas began by piecing together and rehabilitating tracts of former farmland to create the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The ribbon of habitat that lines the Rio Grande acts as a wildlife corridor, connecting these refuge tracts to state lands and privately owned parks like Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary and The Nature Conservancy’s Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve. Individually, none of these tracts would be large enough to support a healthy ocelot population, but with the Rio Grande corridor allowing for movement between tracts, and encouraging cross-border movements, it was hoped that their extirpation in the U.S. could be avoided.

The U.S.-Mexico border wall currently under construction will slice through the wildlife corridor, utterly undermining its purpose and decades of hard work and financial investment. The path of the wall follows the Rio Grande through prime riparian habitat, cutting some refuge tracts in two and severing others from the river, which in many places is the only source of fresh water.

Karen Chapman of the Environmental Defense Fund notes that, although the continued urban development of South Texas poses threats to the ocelot, “no other project so completely isolates habitat patches north and south, so completely renders riparian habitat inaccessible or so thoroughly eliminates the potential for future north-south habitat corridors.”

Concrete border walls topped with metal bars are already tearing through the wildlife corridor in neighboring Hidalgo County , upriver from Cameron County ’s refuge tracts. When the combination levee/border wall was proposed for Hidalgo County last year, Deputy Director Kenneth Stansell of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote to the Customs and Border Protection agency that “any proposed fence and/or levee segment that bisects lands within the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge cannot be found compatible with the purposed for which the Refuge was established.”

With the levee/border walls nearing completion in Hidalgo County ’s refuge tracts, the preservation of the wildlife corridor that remains in Cameron County is even more critical to the ocelots’ survival.

“The last administration swept away dozens of environmental laws to fast-track the construction of an enormously expensive, ineffective border wall,” said Noah Kahn, wildlife refuge program manager for Defenders of Wildlife. “President Obama has made it very clear that he intends to restore scientific integrity to federal actions. We hope that will include steps to reverse or mitigate the damage that the border wall is inflicting on wildlife, habitat and people along our southern border.”


The trip camera photo of the ocelot kitten and mother is public domain and is available at http://www.friendso fsouthtexasrefug 253 or by email at Nancy_Brown@