An elderly gentleman dragged a wagon behind him filled with a few hundred white, wooden crosses, names and dates painted in the center of each one in simple black lettering. About 50 of us were gathered in a circle on the side of a highway in Douglas, Ariz., expectantly looking to him for instructions.
It was raining and cold—maybe 40 degrees. He spoke calmly and methodically into the center of the circle, delivering the instructions that he gives each Tuesday at 5 p.m. “We will walk in a line down the sidewalk. Everyone will take a cross, face the oncoming traffic and shout the name out loud that is written on the cross. The rest of us will respond by shouting, “Presente!” Then, place the cross on the road, leaning it up against the sidewalk gutter with the name facing the traffic.”
Each week a dozen or so residents of Douglas, a town on the U.S./Mexico border, gather on Tuesday evenings to hold a prayer vigil for every person who has died in that county while trying to cross the border. They meet on the side of the highway, about 100 yards from a border checkpoint. Cars roll by slowly, passing through the checkpoint as they cross the border. Sometimes they honk in support; other times the vigil-keepers are met with somber, knowing eyes.
This past March, as the Canterbury Student Ministries coordinator at the University of Virginia, I had the privilege of taking a pilgrimage to the U.S./Mexico border with 12 University of Virginia undergraduates and a few other adults from our community. We passed from one side of the border to the other, feeling the pulse of the open wound, hearing the stories of trauma and resilience on each side. We had the opportunity to participate in the prayer vigil in Douglas, shouting the names of each of the lost souls into the expanse of the desert they tried to overcome. “Presente!” we responded. Presente, or: You are here. We remember.
I cradled one of those white crosses in my arms with the name of a woman who was 32 years-old when she died. Arms and voice trembling from the cold and from the gravity of her loss, I spoke her name. She was a daughter, maybe a mother, maybe a sister, maybe a partner. And she had lost her life attempting a passage that took me about 15 minutes and the quick flash of a U.S. passport.
The situation on the border is a complex web of geopolitical strategy, market capitalism, drug lords and corrupt governments. It is also as simple as a white, wooden cross and a young woman who dreamt dreams like mine. And that was the dance we did in our short week on La Frontera. We moved through the intricacies of the North American Free Trade Agreement into the living room of an abuela who cooks meals for orphans living on the streets every week, and from the history of the militarization of the wall into a sunny afternoon eating popsicles with children on a playground. We experienced contractions and expansions—moments of despair for the world and pure clarity of God’s love.
We were hosted by an amazing organization called Frontera de Cristo, which is part of a network of Christian groups that do border-related work. They regularly host pilgrims, taking groups through various sites and experiences along the borderlands on both the U.S. and Mexican sides.
We did not expect to provide anything beyond prayer and solidarity for those we encountered. We traveled to the borderlands to be transformed, to see in living flesh and color those things that previously were abstract ideas and disembodied statistics. We spent evenings in migrant shelters with folks who had been deported only a few days before we met them—some scooped up after 17 years living in the United States, others fleeing gang violence in Central America. We ate a meal prepared by women who started a permaculture garden and resilience community for their families. We wrote messages in the sand next to the wall – “Pax” and “You are precious to God.” We stumbled through broken Spanish, danced salsa with new friends from a Mexican university, laughed a lot, accepted unearned hospitality, ate churros and shook with grief.
Mexican author Gloria Anzaldúa writes that “a borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary.” There are borders every-where—within our communities, our families, ourselves. But God’s love calls us into oneness—into the deep and abiding reality that we were created to be in relationship with one another. Andalzúa calls La Frontera “una herida abierta,” an open wound.
Our return to Charlottesville was not marked by a frenzied tirade against U.S. politics or a charge into the streets, but rather the quiet, soulful energy of looking inward as we look outward, of hopes of healing the open wounds in ourselves as we heal the wounds of society. We learned in La Frontera that each individual life matters as much as the sweeping political and economic movements that cause lives to be lost and taken. We are changing ourselves as we change the world.
Written By: Grace Aheron, Canterbury Coordinator for the University of Virginia
Photos By: Matthew Johnson