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May 9, 2012 | LeDayne McLeese Polaski
In January of this year, I traveled with a group of seminary students to Tijuana, Mexico. Early in the week, we visited Friendship Park. The park, which was dedicated by Pat Nixon in 1971 as a symbol of binational goodwill, begins at the very spot where it would be possible to stand in California, Mexico, and the Pacific Ocean all at the same time. It was created to be a place in which people from both sides could meet, speak, and even touch. Families separated by the border brought babies to be oohed and aahed over – and caressed across a small chain-link fence. People who lived on opposite sides met to share picnics and even communion. There were cross-border concerts, holiday celebrations, English-Spanish language classes, and even a yoga class with students in both countries.
But now there is a fence through Friendship Park. A 20-foot tall steel structure begun in late 2011 and completed in early 2012, made more impenetrable by a large secondary fence topped with razor wire a little further into US territory, this fence is part of hundreds of miles of existing and promised barriers being installed by the US government along the 1,900-mile border with Mexico.
It’s ugly – in so very many ways. But after we absorbed the ugliness of it, we were all intrigued by the graffiti which has quickly covered the wall – walking up and down we read many messages of protest. “Empires crumble from within.” “This wall will not save your economy.” “Welcome to Fortress America.” “Feel safe yet?”
American Baptist missionary Ray Schellinger was our host for the week. Ray and his wife Adalia run a domestic violence shelter in Tijuana called Deborah’s House.
Early in our visit, Ray took us to Friendship Park, described what it had once been, let us see what it has become and invited us to contemplate throughout the week the messages we’d like to add to the wall.
We returned to Friendship Park late in the week. By then, we’d sat with and heard stories from families who live on a few dollars a week, pastors who struggle to minister to completely transient populations, teachers who seek with practically no resources at all to reach students with profound physical and mental disabilities, men who’d been deported after living in the US for all of their lives that they can remember (most of whom were now separated from their wives and children with no prospect of being reunited), a family still grieving the son/brother who died in the desert trying to cross to the US. We’d seen hundreds of footsteps in a desert area where many people try to cross over – seen blankets, bags, clothes, and shoes left behind by those arrested by the Border Patrol – and visited a graveyard of several hundred people (mostly nameless) who died in the attempt to cross.
We gathered again at Friendship Park after witnessing all of that and tried to collect our thoughts – how could we reflect all we’d seen and felt in a few short words? A few members of the group struggled with the very idea – surely graffiti was always wrong, even when making a political point. More struggled with the point of it all – who would ever see it? How would it ever matter when the people who made the decisions were thousands of miles away? We worked through our struggles and began to paint. We painted the opening words of the poem etched on the Statue of Liberty. We painted “Forgive U.S. for we know not what we do.” I contemplated for a long while before painting, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Ray, whose wife is Mexican and whose two daughters consider themselves both Mexican and American, wrote, ‘No wall can contain my heart.” We took pictures and drove away, still wondering what, if anything, our efforts would mean.
A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from Ray asking for my phone number and saying that he had an amazing story to share with me. When he called a few days later, he started telling me about a work week so bad that he’d considered giving up completely. So many things were going wrong that, for the first time ever, he started thinking about quitting. It just seemed so useless. His discontent was added to the stress of having several new families move into the shelter all at once – women and children feeling shell-shocked from the violence in which they had lived, struggling to make sense of having left at last, and pondering an unfathomable future. Ray knew he was teetering on the edge. Then one night he had a chance for a long talk with one of the new residents. She had moved to Tijuana on a promise from a friend who said he’d help her to start a new life and to eventually move to the US. Instead he abused her and forced her into prostitution. After months of struggle, she finally found the courage to leave. Wanting to at least see the US, she made her way to Friendship Park. Being so close and yet so far away from her dream was so painful that she contemplated suicide. She thought about what it would be like to throw herself into the ocean and end it all. Surely the smartest and easiest thing to do would be to end her life.
And then she began to notice the graffiti. She walked along the wall to read what people had written. It was, she told Ray, a transformational experience. The words reminded her that people – many people, people who did not even know her – cared. And on the strength of that transformed way of seeing – of believing again that there were people who would care for her – she abandoned her thoughts of suicide and sought help. She had made her way to Deborah’s House – the first step to a real new life.
Ray asked her which words had meant the most to her, of the many phrases painted there on the long wall. She paused to think and remember. “There were two,” she finally said, “One was ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ And the other was ‘No wall can contain my heart.’”
And so she herself offered Ray a transformation – a reminder that even when we cannot see the fruits of our labors, God is using us, even us. And Ray offered that transformed way of seeing to me – and I offer it today to you.