The Presbytery of Tres Rios of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) celebrated its 89th stated meeting Oct. 15 with an opening Communion Service at the fence that divides Mexico from the United States.

A group of 55 Tres Rios commissioners on the U.S. side joined 25 Mexican Presbyterians on the other side to worship together, offering a witness of unity and hope for the future of both countries and peoples. The communion elements were passed through the chain links in the fence.

“I have known Jaime Duenas, the Mexican coordinator of Pasos de Fe Presbyterian Border Ministry in El Paso/Ciudad Juarez for more than eight years, but the man I was talking to through the wire fence on the Mexico/USA border looked different to me from the Jaime I know,” Casal said.

“Seeing the face of a friend through the wire fence on the border gives a very different perspective. I had the sensation that I was visiting a man in jail,” Casal reflected, “or maybe I was the one in jail and not he. The dynamics of the border change perspective and the wire fabric of the fence distorts the vision and the image of things.”

A bus and several cars carrying the American worshippers arrived at 8:45 a.m. to an open area on the border area of Santa Teresa NM — only 15 minutes away from University Presbyterian Church in El Paso that hosted the Presbytery meeting.  Folded chairs were distributed for those who were not able to stand for the whole service.

People praying in the desert.

Participants on the American side taking communion.

A folded table was set with the communion elements and a small lectern with a microphone was installed while Mexican Presbyterian worshippers arriving at the same time were doing similar set-up on the other side of the fence.

Pastors Felipe Barandarian and Robelio Martinez led the service on the Mexican side while the Revs. John Nelsen, Rebecca Whitaker and Katherine Norvell led the worship in English on the U.S. side. Casal provided translation between English and Spanish.  

Hymns sung in both languages included  “Oh What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “We Are One in the Spirit.” The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was also conducted in both languages.

The Rev. Judy Fletcher, executive of the Synod of the Sun, preached on I Kings 19: 4-8 — the experience of the prophet Elijah when he received sanctuary from the angel of God. 

“Elijah goes to sleep in the wilderness and is awakened by an angel who provides food for him.  What Elijah experiences is sanctuary,” Fletcher said. “He receives rest and food with no questions asked, no provisional requirements. He was not asked for a green card. He simply received sanctuary.” 

People praying in the desert.

The Rev. Judy Fletcher (behind pulpit), Synod of the Sun executive, preaches at the cross-border service. Also leading worship were the Rev. Jose Luis Casal (left), general missioner of Tres Rios Presbytery, and the Rev. John Nelsen (center), pastor of University Presbyterian Church in El Paso.

Fletcher challenged the makeshift bi-national congregation: “We too have received sanctuary in our own congregations. We have received the care and feeding with no questions asked. We have been taken in by a loving congregation. Maybe now we need to be about offering sanctuary to others who need food and shelter and a safe place to be.”

She defined sanctuary not as a place to stay but as a “journey to justice.” Connecting the sacrament with the I Kings passage she said, “We are to receive the grace at this table and then leave to be on a journey, a journey to justice where we face and take on the issue of racism in our society today. On this journey to justice we are to tear down walls that divide us, not unlike this frontera, this border, we face today.”

The invitation to the Lord’s Table included the invocation that “as people come to the table, we must make sure that there is room for all God’s children at this Table.  Remember “red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in God’s sight?” Fletcher asked.

“Well, they are all invited to this table. Conservatives and liberals are invited to this Table. Rich and poor are invited. Friends and enemies are invited. Gays and straights are invited,” she continued.

“And we must make sure there is room for those in wheel chairs and walking with crutches. Migrants and new immigrants are invited to this table. Our justice work is to make sure there is a place at this table for these people and that they know they are invited to this table. ALL God’s children are invited here.”

Local affiliates from all three major television networks broadcast the celebration. After the service, Casal responded to a question by an NBC reporter: “Yes, there are risks and there is always danger at the border. This is a tough place, but God called us here because this is the place where we have to proclaim our faith and convictions— our presence here in solidarity with our Mexican brothers and sisters demonstrates that fences or walls cannot divide the people of God. We are one people under God.” 

Information for this story furnished by the Rev. Jose Luis Casal.