Call to the Wall

Via Crucis to the U.S.-Mexican Border, April 2, 2012


The group started in MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, very early in the morning. From there it moved to Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana, then to St. Clement’s by the Sea in San Clemente (where we joined), then to St. John’s in Chula Vista, not far from the international border. At each stop additional people joined the group and 3-4 Stations were performed. A Via Crucis consists of 14 “Stations of the Cross”; at each there was a brief reading by one member of the group and a musical refrain (“Santo Dios, Santo Poderoso, Santo Inmortal, Ten piedad de nosotros”). The priests led prayers, keeping us in mind of the the purpose of the procession, which was to draw attention to the plight of undocumented immigrants and call for compassion and solidarity and reform of harsh immigration laws.

It’s not clear how much attention was actually being stimulated. A short article appeared in the O.C. Register, covering mainly the San Clemente stop:

Also, a single photograph with caption was on p. 3 of the L.A. Times for April 3. In retrospect, it seems that the journey had less significance for the public than it did for those involved, as a private and collective spiritual exercise, which is what a Via Crucis is supposed to be.

The event had several organizers, and was accompanied by a number of clergy, including Bishop Suffragan Diane Jardine Bruce of Los Angeles and Bishop James Mathes of the Diocese of San Diego. It’s a good thing the weather wasn’t hot, since they would have perished in their heavy robes. As it was, we had perfect conditions, sunny, clear and cool.

The main inspirer was Rev. Liz Muñoz, Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Los Angeles. She is a seasoned organizer and clearly used to bringing people together around a cause. At the end of each stop she would announce, “Sigue el caravan….” It was in fact a caravan, a dozen or so cars marked with red duct-tape crosses on the rear window so we could stay together on the winding route.

One pickup truck carried a large wooden cross from Messiah in Santa Ana. This is the cross that we carry every year in the local Good Friday procession through downtown. I’m not sure it had ever been so far from home. There was also a life-sized statue of Jesus that had been brought by car from El Salvador some years before and that resides at Trinity Church. It is a traditional representation, called “Salvador del Mundo,” the patron saint of the city of San Salvador. On this trip he was housed in a glass case and strapped securely into a small trailer with some red banners. This truck and trailer headed up the caravan, so were were all following our Savior.

The last leg took us from Chula Vista to Border Field State Park. It’s a bit out of the way. We followed a narrow road past some horse farms and came to an unpaved parking lot, where Bishop Diane greeted us, fully robed and waving her arms enthusiastically in the middle of the road. From there we set out on foot for the border. The marching order was as follows: cross-bearer in front (people took turns in this role), then the red banners, then the Bishops, followed by the guitarist and a group of the most confident singers, then the rest. It was quite a picture, especially the male and female bishops ambling down the rough dirt road arm in arm, glittering festive attire swinging in the breeze.

Border Field State Park, as it turns out, is an imposing flat expanse bracketing a long stretch of shoreline next to the border (Imperial Beach). Inland there is brush and low trees, but closer to the ocean it becomes a salt marsh with dry yellow pools punctuated by islands of vegetation. At this time of year the mounds bloom with brilliant colors, and birds of various kinds are all about. It is a precious natural habitat, but at the same time a kind of no man’s land. There are no landmarks, the beach is not visible except from very close, and the dirt roads fork without signage. There is a definite sense of being in a desert or wilderness. We went the wrong way a couple of times, and the entire group had to reverse direction (still without any certainty that we were going the right way).

It was almost an hour on foot to the fence, with Border Patrol helicopters buzzing overhead. Once on the beach, you can see the border fence in the distance, with the Tijuana skyline behind it.

If you’ve never seen the border, it is actually two fences a short stone’s throw apart. At the point where we were, just above the beach, the American side is just wilderness, with a small paved area and some service buildings, but the Mexican side is more lively, seemingly a city street of some kind. We set up the improvised sanctuary in between the fences, with the altar at the Mexican end and that “narthex” at the U.S. end, marking a kind of center aisle with the red banners. The Salvador statue, which had been driven in by a Border Patrol road, was placed next to the altar. The one Border Patrol guard on duty was very helpful; the only rule was that only about a dozen persons could be in the space between the fences at any one time.

The Mexicans, had put together an impressive group of clergy on their side, with a superb Mariachi ensemble and what looked like a sizable crowd of people in attendance. They gave communion on their side, and our clergy did the same in parallel, in the space between the fences. Then, the people were called back for another pass: those on the Mexican side got a final blessing from the U.S. clergy, and those on the U.S. side were blessed by the Mexican clergy.

Finally, the paraphernalia was packed up for the trip home, and we headed back down the beach in scattered groups. Holy Week was still ahead of us, with lots of work to do; this was only the beginning.