On the border between San Diego (California, USA) and Tijuana (Mexico), there is a plaza, a circular plaza. It was on the border and a monument was erected, now on the Mexican side. Last century a fence was built but it was possible to pass things through the fence, along with messages to family and friends on either side of the border. In 2009, this was blocked when the Federal Government seized the land from California. A more solid fence was built and extended out into the ocean about 300 metres. Family gatherings were made more difficult and at times stopped altogether (from the US side).
Over a decade ago, two Methodist ministers, one on the Mexica side and the other on the US side began a church service. They gathered with whoever wanted to be part of it and held a service each Sunday afternoon. No longer able to share food through the fence (apart from it being too hard to squeeze food through the very narrow space, there were now restrictions around quarantine). They shared Holy Communion each week – both sides holding the elements and praying together, eating at the same time and uniting themselves to each other. There are prayers, readings and singing. Over the years they have experienced various restrictions and hardships, often without warning – and all from the US side. Originally 40 people were allowed in what is called Friendship Park and then suddenly that was reduced to 10 at a time without warning. Sometimes they have been allowed to be close to the fence and pass the peace God by touching little fingers through small openings. Other times they were required to be 15-20 metres away from the fence and therefore, each other. They would worship via mobile phone. What ever has been thrown in their way, they have countered creatively, with hope and patience.
Journalist, Amy Frykholm, visited the church and spoke to Methodist Minister, John Fanestil. She says: The work of the border church includes claiming the “true nature of the border,” Fanestil says. The federal government wants to mark the border as a place of crime and danger and fear. “We know it as a place of encounter, exchange, friendship, fellowship. We try to show up weekly in order to show what the border is truly.” While the coronavirus has put this weekly in-person meeting on hiatus, the true identity continues to be claimed, on both sides of the border.
As I read a reflection on this church and the story around it, I thought about the strange passage for this week – John 10:1-10. It contains a plethora of images around sheep, shepherds, sheepfolds, voices that are familiar and recognised, a gate and thieves and bandits. It shifts the metaphors, with Jesus featuring as shepherd, gate, gatekeeper…
In the story about the US-Mexican border and the church that meets across it, there is hope and an opening. The authorities want to close off contact and connection, to stop the interaction and exclude people through a barrier that is solid, keeping people in and out. The Church transcends the barrier, connecting people across the fence and their differences of culture or politics, uniting them as people of God who are loved and united as one. It is a powerful symbol of hope and friendship, of relationship and peace rather than conflict, division and fear.
It is into these places of fear, division, where barriers are built and fences erected, where people are isolated and excluded, that Jesus becomes a gateway into a new possibility of life and relationship. Jesus calls himself a gate, an opening in the solidity of the walls and barriers that divide, creating a way to traverse these barriers and build relationship and community that is inclusive and life-giving. Jesus, the Gate, pushes boundaries and barriers back, creating paths to freedom and life for everyone.
There are many barriers that divide us, or we erect against the world and those who are different. We create barriers from fear, the need to control, for security and protect things we have. There are many who find themselves enslaved behind the fences and walls of exclusion, prejudice and fear. There are many who are excluded because of gender, age, culture, creed, sexual identity or orientation. Others are excluded by virtue of mental or physical illness, disability of body or mind, psychological or emotional trauma from abuse, violence or war. Such barriers divide and separate. Jesus, the gate, breaks open our barriers and brings the hope of something new that unites people in the human family, embracing a world of diverse beauty and wonder. It begins with a small hole that allows the Light to shine through. We begin to ‘see’ and we’re drawn into something bigger than ourselves, something beyond ‘me.’ At the border church they can touch through small spaces and connect. The voice of One who proclaims love and life resonates through their worship, across borders of division and exclusion calling them into life together as an inclusive community across time and space.
This gateway intrudes into the divisive and conflictual ways of people, creating the possibility of relationship that transcends our fear or hatred, greed or difference. If we learn nothing more through the Covid-19 crisis, it may be that our experience of isolation and separation helps us understand and identify with those who live in more extreme isolation and exclusion. Our simplified lives for a season may help us understand we don’t need as much as we have, and we can share with those who have too little. In this time our Earth has breathed and rested and so have many of us. Do we need to return to the frenetic lives of accumulation and expectation that engulf us in ordinary times? Surely there is a gift in this wretched time that offers a way of hope and new life to the world – if we will listen and have the courage to move forward in a new way. Jesus, the gate into new life and being has opened a possibility through this time, a voice of life echoes through the stories and lives of the world that yearns for rest and peace, calling us to imagine and believe that everything can be different.
In another reading for this week from Acts 2:42-47, there is a wonderful picture of early followers of Jesus, hearing his voice ring through the stories of their Scriptures, their experiences of Jesus and his life and the profound experience of resurrection that shattered their grief and false expectations. They lived in a communal way where all was shared so no-one had too much or too little and those beyond this community also received help as they needed it. The community shared meals and prayed, shared stories and life and their common life was grounded in love. They were a living hope and Christ was in their midst. People were drawn to this way of love and inclusion, so very different, and a place where age, gender, culture, economic status and all other categories and barriers were overcome.
The little Border Church is also a prophetic community that transcends hatred, division and exclusion in the way of Jesus, the gate who opens the way to liberation and life.