'Good Guys and Bad Guys' on the Border

By John Fanestil 2-27-2009

On Saturday, Feb. 21, I was almost arrested for committing assault with a tortilla. Or was it my communion cup that the border patrol agent took to be a threat?

The setting was Friendship Park, a historic venue overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the U.S.-Mexico border. For generations people have met at this location to visit through the border fence. I have seen lovers kiss through the fence, grandparents greet newborn grandchildren through the fence, people say goodbye to dying loved ones through the fence. No more.

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 has announced its intent to permanently eliminate all public access to this unique site.

Call us naïve, but we who are aficionados of the park had assumed that there would be at least some small allowance for friendship in the complex formula of U.S. border policy.

Apparently not; customs and border patrol having concluded that incidents of people passing contraband through the fence warrant shutting down the park.

I know nothing of contraband, and so now have the ignominious distinction of being the first U.S. citizen to be forcibly prevented from entering Friendship Park.

All I was trying to do was serve communion. For the past eight months I have served communion weekly there, to people on both sides of the border. I have done so in solidarity with the thousands of people who have broken bread peacefully at this location across so many years.

On Saturday I offered communion to a group of 150 or so who had gathered in the U.S. I then turned to the south, intending to serve the crowd in Tijuana.

A border patrol agent blocked my way, determined to make an impression.

"You don't want to do this," he shouted at me, unsnapping the handcuffs on his uniform.

I told him I just wanted to serve communion, but he stepped in front of me, holding out his hand. "If you bump into me," he shouted, "you'll be charged with assaulting an officer."

"Okay, then," I replied. "I guess you'll have to arrest me, because I'm going to serve communion."

"Okay, I will," he said. "Turn around and put your hands behind your back."

I did as I was told and the lead agent told a colleague to remove me from the premises.

As we climbed the hillside that overlooks the beach at Friendship Park, the second agent asked me, "What did you have to go and do all that for?"

"I meant no disrespect to you," I explained. "My problem is with the policy, with the decision by your higher-ups to shut down the park."

"The ones who ruin it," he replied, "are the bad guys who pass crap through the fence."

"I understand that," I said, "but this is exactly the problem with all our border policies. There's got to be some way we can distinguish between the bad guys and the good guys."

The agent shrugged.

As it turns out, the lead agent chose not to arrest me after all. I was detained for about 30 minutes and then released.

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 week -- was he less worthy of communion on Saturday than my friends in the United States? What about Oscar, who was deported eight months ago and is separated from his wife and children? 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?

Of course Friendship Park is a symbol, one that points to a larger question: What is to become of our nation's southern border? Is this strip of land -- more than 1,850 miles long -- to be turned over to the Department of Homeland Security and reduced to a "zone of enforcement," straddled by walls?

I cannot abide it because I know the border as an altogether different place. For millions of us whose relationships straddle the international boundary, the border is a place where human beings meet, a place of friendship, a place of communion.

And that's why I'll be going back next Sunday afternoon, to try once more to serve communion at Friendship Park.

Rev. John Fanestil is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and executive director of the Foundation for Change.

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