Culture, Essays

“Tearing Down the Dividing Wall”: Improvising Reconciliation on the U.S.-Mexico Border

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It all began with a couple of nuns serving meals out of the trunk of their car. The food was for hungry people who arrived in Nogales, Sonora, deported from the United States to Mexico. Every day the sisters would prepare as much food as they could carry and drive to the border’s port of entry, where daily busses would leave bewildered immigrants in an unfamiliar city. Today, this operation has evolved into a bi-national organization that provides food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention to thousands of migrants annually. It has also expanded its efforts to include not only direct service, but also educational programming and advocacy work. As it straddles the first and third worlds, the Catholic community at the Kino Border Initiative has developed creative practices that challenge the politics of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The creativity of the Kino Border Initiative reflects a mode of ethical action that contemporary theologian Samuel Wells labels improvisation, or a Christian community’s performing the drama of the Gospel according to the unique demands of a given time and place. The story improvised by this community at the border is a story of reconciliation in a place visibly marked by division; it is a story of communion and life in a place defined by separation and death. Improvisation, as Wells explains, relies on a narrative, and on the U.S.-Mexico border, two competing narratives drive two contesting, improvised dramas: that of the economic interests of the nation-state, and that of communion in the life of the Church. The practices of the Kino Border Initiative, especially of its soup kitchen, or comedor, flow from a Eucharistic vision of reconciliation that challenges the meaning the nation-state assigns to the border. The story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—who shares his Body and Blood with the Church in the Last Supper and in the celebration of the Eucharist—has shaped the imaginations of those who invite migrants to table fellowship. The Christian narrative they enact stands in sharp contrast to the narrative of nation-state politics—marked by greed and violence—that otherwise dominates the border region. Powerful symbols of these opposing narratives can be found in the architecture of the border wall and the small building that serves as a dining hall for migrants. These physical structures and the art that adorns them serve as an entry point to understand the underlying, contesting narratives operative in the practices of the nation-state and the Kino Border Initiative.

This essay will begin with an exploration of Wells’ account of ethics as improvisation, demonstrating how the concepts Wells proposes illuminate the Kino Border Initiative’s responses to human needs exacerbated by unjust nation-state politics. Then, by examining the art and architecture of the border wall and the comedor, I will excavate the underlying narratives these structures represent and suggest that they function symbolically as stages or backdrops for the dramas unfolding on the border. The narrative of the border wall and the mural of Santa Muerte, which is enacted in a drama of increasing economic inequalities and improvised deaths, confronts a powerful counter-narrative in the small comedor with its mural of the Last Supper, which is enacted in practices of sharing table fellowship, reconciliation, and communion. Because such practices flow from a Eucharistic imagination, I will conclude by highlighting the centrality of the Eucharist in the imaginative ways the Kino Border Initiative has responded to migration on the U.S.-Mexico border. As Wells points out, the Eucharist is “a regular event in which the Body of Christ meets the embodied Christ, in a drama of encounter, reconciliation, and commission.”[1] While the nation-state sees the border as a line of demarcation, a threshold controlling wealth and privilege, for the Eucharistic community at the Kino Border Initiative, the border is a place of encounter with Christ in the migrant, a place to perform the drama of the new creation in Christ—the drama of reconciliation and communion.

Ethics as Improvisation

When Samuel Wells speaks about ethics as improvisation, he develops this concept from an understanding of theology as narrative, which recognizes God’s action in history as a story revealed in Scripture and in the life and teaching of the Church. But the concept of narrative alone does not capture a three-dimensional theology, a theology that goes beyond written texts to be interpreted and enacted in the practices of Christian communities. Such interpreting and enacting of the Christian story in community is the end—the telos—of theological ethics. This understanding of ethics moves beyond narrative into the realm of performance, the realm of drama:

The embodiment of the text, the events it describes, its interpretation and systematic construal in the practices and performance of the community . . . is a dynamic, spiraling process of constant repetition, reinterpretation, transfer, and restoration of meaning, of things never being the same again and other things being rediscovered, ever new. It is what happens when words leave the page, when thoughts leave the mind, when actions ripple through other lives and cause further actions and further thoughts. It is what happens when narrative becomes drama.[2]

But to emphasize that ethics as drama does not imply an overly determined script, or the rigid repetition of some past golden age, or an entirely self-contained story line, Wells proposes the notion of improvisation as a way to understand what it means for the Christian community to remain faithful in changing circumstances. To set at ease those who may think of improvisation as originality, Wells clarifies that improvisation instead requires the painstaking formation of good habits through discipline within a community, so that in a moment of crisis, the community simply does what is obvious. Such practice in ordinary circumstances allows the community to respond creatively and constructively when they meet unanticipated situations. Improvisation is not only inevitable given the dynamism of communities in particular settings, argues Wells, but it also implies formation in Christian Scripture and Tradition. The notion of improvisation takes an ecclesial view of theological ethics, that is, ethics grounded in the practices of the Church, in the daily life of small Christian communities as they face ordinary and extraordinary ethical dilemmas.[3]

Migrants prepare to eat in the comedor (Nogales, Sonora, Mexico); photo used with permission of the Kino Border Initiative.

Migrants prepare to eat in the comedor (Nogales, Sonora, Mexico); photo used with permission of the Kino Border Initiative.

The drama of Christian ethics is one that invites imaginative participation in a story that requires concrete responses to life’s challenges. Improvisation is necessary because the story of God’s action in the world is still unfolding. Drawing on the work of other scholars, Wells describes the Christian drama as a play in five acts: “Act One is creation, Act Two is Israel, Act Three is Jesus, Act Four is the Church, and Act Five is the eschaton.”[4] Discipleship occurs in the fourth act, as the Church follows Christ through faithful improvisation, looking to the Bible and the practices of their common life for resources to guide them in the creative, yet obvious, responses called for by their ever-changing circumstances.[5] As has already been mentioned, the disciplined practices of the Christian community (like Baptism, Eucharist, prayer, worship, etc.) shape the imagination so that improvisation remains faithful to the Gospel. Wells offers an example of how the Eucharist shapes the imagination of the Christian community, and his extended description is worth quoting at length:

By sharing bread with one another around the Lord’s Table, Christians learn to live in peace with those with whom they share other tables—breakfast, shop-floor, office, checkout. They develop the skills of distribution, of the poor sharing their bread with the rich, and the rich with the poor. They develop the skills of equality, of the valued place of differently abled, differently gendered and oriented people, those of assorted races and classes and medical, criminal, and social histories. They develop the practices of giving and receiving, of handing over the firstfruits of labor and receiving back the firstfruits of the resurrection. They develop the skills of participating in the life of heaven, in realizing their simple actions anticipate God’s eternal destiny. They practice the virtues of justice, generosity, and hope. They learn the notions of regular dependence on God’s abiding providence, of the coming kingdom, of sacrifice and holiness.[6]

In the Eucharist, Christians encounter Christ and learn what it means to encounter Christ in interactions with others. As Wells explains, the practice of breaking bread in the Eucharist shapes the imagination of Christians so that the community can improvise breaking bread in other contexts. The Eucharist has implications for sharing the gifts of creation, for welcoming all to the Lord’s Table, for cultivating “justice, generosity, and hope”[7]—in short, for living in peaceful communion. We will return to this understanding of the Eucharist and its implications below.

The drama of Christian ethics is one that invites imaginative participation in a story that requires concrete responses to life’s challenges. Improvisation is necessary because the story of God’s action in the world is still unfolding.

Wells’ account of theology as drama and ethics as improvisation sheds light on the practices of the Kino Border Initiative. Out of their practice of the Eucharist, they have creatively interpreted what it means to live by the logic of the Eucharist in a place otherwise guided by a very different logic. The border between the United States and Mexico is a place of sharp divisions and contrasts. It is to this reality that we now turn. What follows is a description of art and architecture on the border—two structures and two murals—that serve as stages for two very different, contesting border dramas.

Sketches of Border Structures

Industrial steel beams protrude from the desert floor, reaching about twenty feet high and forming a stark barrier between the communities of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. Some call it a fence—“Good fences make good neighbors,” they say. Others call it a wall—like the one we tore down in Berlin. In fact, Ched Myers and Elaine Enns, leaders of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries, point out that construction on the border wall in the United States began the same year the Berlin wall fell.[8] Fence or wall, it symbolizes a partition, a division, a separation, a border between here and there, Mexico and the United States. It represents “the social architecture of division that defines our world.”[9] With the North American Free Trade Agreement, many items move back and forth unhindered, in defiance of the barrier, but the number of people allowed to cross is greatly restricted. Many attempt the crossing anyway. Some beat the odds and cross undetected by the vigilant U.S. Border Patrol; most of them do so in hopes of better economic opportunities. Others are caught and deported for not having the proper paperwork. The least fortunate initially make the crossing but die in the extreme desert conditions. Every year hundreds of corpses are found in the Sonoran Desert. In the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector alone, which covers only 262 linear miles of the Arizona border,[10] 172 dead bodies were found in fiscal year 2012 (down from 252 found in 2010).[11] Many human rights activists argue that deaths in the desert can be traced to U.S. government policies that enacted the construction of the border wall. Since the mid-1990s, when more aggressive wall-building campaigns began, migration has been diverted to more remote (and therefore more dangerous) desert areas.

Detail of Santa Muerte mural below the border fence (Nogales, Sonora, Mexico); photo: George Thomson; CC-BY 2.0.

Detail of Santa Muerte mural below the border fence (Nogales, Sonora, Mexico); photo: George Thomson; CC-BY 2.0.

Not far from the downtown Nogales port of entry, close to a border patrol watchtower and beneath the imposing fence, a rocky embankment boasts a mural of Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, a figure who has attracted a cult following among many who live in the shadows of the border wall.[12] Death is depicted as enthroned between burnt desert sand and cerulean sky, a Grim Reaper robed in black, surrounded by images that suggest human bodies and icons of indigenous spirituality. Above the head of the foreboding skeleton is the masonic symbol of the Eye of Providence, a replica of the symbol as it appears on the U.S. one dollar bill. Desperate people who have given up on God have begun to ask favors of Death—drug runners, mafia hit men, human smugglers, and migrants afraid of the crossing. Given the number of deaths that occur in the border region, whether from drug-related violence or exposure to the elements and dehydration, Santa Muerte proves a fitting symbol of the border’s darker realities, a backdrop for an improvised drama of greed, violence, and despair.

Death is depicted as enthroned between burnt desert sand and cerulean sky, a Grim Reaper robed in black, surrounded by images that suggest human bodies and icons of indigenous spirituality.

If the imposing steel beams and mural of the Grim Reaper in Nogales symbolize the border as a line of demarcation, division, and even death, just south of the border another structure symbolizes the border as a space of encounter, communion, and life. Several yards from the steel fence, a lean-to building juts out of a rocky dirt slope. Constructed from concrete blocks, metal fencing, and a tin roof, the Centro de Atención al Migrante Deportado (CAMDEP or Center for Aid to the Deported Migrant) offers first response services to Mexican nationals who have been deported from the United States and to migrants from Mexico and Central America who are heading North. The comedor, as it is commonly called, provides two meals a day as well as clothing and hygiene items to the hundreds of migrants who pass through Nogales, Sonora each week. Operated by the Kino Border Initiative—a bi-national organization and partnership between the Missionaries of the Eucharist—a Mexican religious order, and Jesuit Refugee Services—with Jesuits from U.S. and Mexican provinces, the comedor is one of several related outreach sites in this Mexican border town. Kino also runs a free medical clinic and a small shelter for women and children.

The ad hoc structure of the comedor for deported migrants (Nogales, Sonora, Mexico); photo used with permission of Kino Border Initiative.

The ad hoc structure of the comedor for deported migrants (Nogales, Sonora, Mexico); photo used with permission of Kino Border Initiative.

The border region can be dangerous, especially for migrants who often become victims of kidnapping, extortion, and violent crime, but the comedor is a place of comfort and safety. The little structure isn’t much to look at from the outside, but upon entering, one is greeted by a variety of hopeful images. Posters proclaiming messages of human dignity and human rights adorn the chain link fencing that serves for walls. A nook by the tiny kitchen is decorated with a vibrant painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who, surrounded by butterflies, extends her hand towards a man walking in the desert. But the comedor’s most prominent image is the mural of the Last Supper that brightens a concrete wall, overlooking the rows of picnic tables. Seated at a table covered in a map of the world (a world that shows no borders between nation-states), Jesus and his disciples are depicted with smiling faces, wearing caps and sneakers like the migrants who, every day, file into the small eating area to share in table fellowship. Not only does Jesus the Migrant smile from the mural upon the men, women, and children who come for meals, but a handful of dedicated staff and volunteers, religious sisters, and Jesuit priests also smile and shake the hands of those who, finding themselves in the liminal space of the borderlands, have arrived in this unlikely place for food. Upbeat music plays on the stereo, reminding the guests at the comedor that the good things in life are for everyone to share: “The sun rises for all of us, it gives itself with love, it does not distinguish between borders, or races, or colors. The sun rises for all of us, like a song rises, when night fades, the sun rises for all.”[13] The words of this song illuminate the meaning of the map on the tablecloth in the mural: the whole world is God’s gift, and all of us belong together at the table of creation, at the Lord’s table of redemption. This lean-to structure and the art that adorns it serve as a stage for improvising practices of communion and reconciliation.

Stories Beneath the Structures

As mentioned above, the border wall with its mural of Santa Muerte and the comedor with its mural of the Last Supper symbolize contesting narratives of the U.S.-Mexico border. The former represents the story of nation-states, their economic interests and their sovereignty over territory, which result in improvised deaths. The latter, as a stage for the Kino Border Initiative’s improvisational practices, resists the narrative of the nation-state and instead represents the story of the new creation, of persons reconciled to God and to each other.

The border wall serves as a backdrop for the drama that unfolds between nation-states in a globalized capitalist society. According to this script, borders demarcate territory and wealth, and the policies that drive the plot serve the material ends of the economically powerful United States. In this drama, the poor of Latin America suffer the effects of regional trade policies that favor the United States while disregarding increasing global inequalities. When, for example, Central Americans can no longer sell the corn they have grown (because subsidized American corn has flooded their markets), they move North towards the economic powerhouse.[14] But they confront a heavily guarded border—material possessions protected by military might. It is the drama of an economic and political system that crushes people, grinding the faces of the poor (cf. Is 3:15). Perhaps it is not so ironic that certain materials for the wall along the border in San Diego were donated by the Pentagon after Operation Desert Storm: “One war’s surplus bolstering another war’s front lines,” say Meyers and Enns, a “war against the poor and refugee, the neoliberal global economic order’s Berlin Wall.”[15]

U.S. Border Patrol watchtower, border fence, and mural of Santa Muerte (Nogales, Sonora, Mexico); photo used with permission of Kino Border Initiative.

U.S. Border Patrol watchtower, border fence, and mural of Santa Muerte (Nogales, Sonora, Mexico); photo used with permission of Kino Border Initiative.

The thick, metal rods that shoot towards the sky are the set on the stage for the drama of a nation whose policies proclaim, “You are not welcome here unless you have enough money to qualify for a legal tourist visa or enough education to work a white collar job.” The mural of the imposing Santa Muerte, which sits enthroned beneath the masonic symbol of the Eye of Providence that appears on the dollar bill, links hegemonic economic interests with the prevalence of violence and death on the border. These industrial metal rods and the portrait of the Grim Reaper, the art and architecture of the nation-state, symbolize structures of sin that characterize relationships between first and third world countries. In 1968, the Latin American bishops at Medellín describe the unjust structures that have resulted in a precarious social, political, and economic situation in Latin America, created, in part, by dependence on wealthy countries like the United States. The bishops warn that the institutional violence that perpetuates gross inequalities, consigning vast portions of the population to marginalized positions in society, often leads to the eruption of actual violence in the form of armed conflict.[16] The situation at the border today reflects the dynamic described by the Latin American bishops nearly fifty years ago. For many of the poor in Latin America, the U.S.-Mexico border represents a threshold between the possibility for a better life and surrendering to despair. The poor who struggle to make a living at the doorstep of the United States often resort to illicit or violent activities like human smuggling and drug trafficking. The violence of drug cartels has increased, even as the United States has tightened security measures, making the border a militarized zone. Frequent news reports tell of shootings—death by bullets of sicarios (cartel assassins) and even the U.S. Border Patrol.[17]

If the Medellín documents describe the link between institutionalized violence and other forms of violence, they also call the Church to conversion, challenging the people of God to take up the permanent task of peace:

A community becomes a reality in time and is subject to a movement that implies constant change in structures, transformation of attitudes, and conversion of hearts. . . . [Peace] is not something that is acquired once and for all. It is the result of continuous effort and adaptation to new circumstances, to new demands and challenges of a changing history. . . . An authentic peace implies struggle, creative abilities and permanent conquest. Peace is not found, it is built. The Christian . . . is the artisan of peace.[18]

The bishops envision peace as something that is built through creative (even artistic) efforts in Christian communities over time, amidst changing circumstances. This note strikes a chord with Samuel Wells’ account of improvisation, of a community’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances while remaining faithful to Gospel teaching and the historical witness of the Church. The Kino Border Initiative has taken up the task of improvising the peace envisioned by the bishops at Medellín, peace that is the work of justice and the fruit of love.[19]

The Catholic community of the Kino Border Initiative recognizes that the peace to be built on the border is “the expression of true fraternity among men, a fraternity given by Christ, Prince of Peace, in reconciling all men with the Father.”[20] This peace—the peace of reconciliation—is ultimately a gift, as the bishops explain: “Human solidarity cannot truly take effect unless it is done in Christ, who gives Peace that the world cannot give.”[21] Thus, the drama staged at the comedor is a drama whose script does not revolve around the interests of the nation-state, but rather around the mysterious gifts of creation and redemption, of humanity reconciled to God and to each other, celebrated in communion and table fellowship. If the drama of the nation-state partitions economic goods according to territorial boundaries, the drama of reconciliation finds ways to share the good gifts of creation, recognizing human dignity as more fundamental than nationality. The community of priests, sisters, and lay people who serve at the comedor enacts what is represented in the mural of Jesus the Migrant who shares the Last Supper—the gifts of his Body and Blood—with his friends, at a table depicting a map without borders. This drama is reflected in the art and the hope-filled music in the comedor; it is a drama that tears down barriers between human beings by inviting them to share a meal together. The drama of their lives follows a script that is both biblical and sacramental, improvised in a way that enacts the mystery of the new creation in Christ, known through the Eucharist. It is to the biblical and sacramental dimensions of this theological drama that we now turn.

Embodying the Drama of New Creation and Communion

The scriptural narrative of God’s loving work in creating and redeeming the world enlivens the drama enacted by the community of the Kino Border Initiative. As they welcome migrants to the table at the comedor, they act as ministers of reconciliation, improvising out of biblical passages like 2 Corinthians 5:17–20 (RSV):

If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

In a place where people are divided by a line in the sand, visibly marked by a fence of industrial metal beams, the Catholic community at the Kino Border Initiative welcomes people from many nations into the comedor as a place of fellowship. As ambassadors of Christ, as ministers of reconciliation, they see the oneness of God’s family as prior to any identification of people along lines of race, ethnicity, or nationality. In the comedor, such walls are torn down and people are welcomed as one in Christ. Thus they enact St. Paul’s message to the Ephesians:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God. (Eph 2:13–19)

In Christ, who has brought peace by tearing down “the dividing wall of hostility,” all are reconciled and made one with God in him. Thus, no matter one’s economic condition, ethnicity, nationality, or citizenship status, in Christ, all have been made “fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God.” The Kino Border Initiative performs this drama, enacts this narrative of reconciliation as they improvise table fellowship on the border between the United States and Mexico. In the comedor, migrants who have been deported from the United States and migrants who hope to make a better life in the United States are recognized as members of God’s family, and are invited to share in the banquet of life.

[The drama of reconciliation] tears down barriers between human beings by inviting them to share a meal together.

This banquet of life is best understood in terms of the Eucharist, a practice that grounds the Kino Border Initiative in the Catholic faith and gives impetus to the creative, improvisational work they carry out among migrants. In the Eucharist, the Christian community receives Christ together and is transformed by the gift of his Body and Blood. The mural on the main wall of the comedor hints at the Last Supper as the inauguration of the Eucharistic celebration, and by depicting Jesus, the disciples, and holy women as migrants, those who join the Kino community for meals are invited to locate themselves in the story of the Eucharist as well. For the community at the Kino Border Initiative, an encounter with a migrant is a transformative encounter with Christ, because as Jesus himself says: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Mt 25:35–36).

By welcoming migrants to the comedor, offering them food and water, giving them clothes and medical treatment, providing shelter, and comforting those who have been held in detention centers, those who participate in the ministries of the Kino Border Initiative meet the needs of Christ. To encounter a migrant in table fellowship is as sacramental as encountering Christ in the Eucharist. Drawing on Yves Congar’s notion of “the sacrament of our neighbor,” Gustavo Gutiérrez emphasizes that the love of God and the love of neighbor are in fact one love, and communion with God includes communion with our neighbors.[22] Thus, the practice of table fellowship with migrants flows from practice of the Eucharist and reflects the same reality—communion with God and with others.

Improvising Reconciliation

Out of this biblical vision of the new creation and reconciliation in Christ, with their imaginations formed by the practice of the Eucharist so that they recognize Christ in “the sacrament of our neighbor,” the community at the Kino Border Initiative continues to improvise out of this drama.[23] The ad-hoc nature of the comedor’s structure—with its patched together materials, decorated with creativity and love—reflects its gradual evolution and adaptation to changing needs and circumstances. The little lean-to soup kitchen is the backdrop of Kino’s improvisational activity. When the nuns began to distribute food by the side of the road, meeting basic human needs for nourishment and companionship—needs government migration and deportation policies ignore and even violate—they never would have imagined that their efforts would eventually lead to the formation of a bi-national organization. But over time, as other volunteers offered to help the sisters and Jesuit Refugee Services invest the resources and personnel necessary to grow the capacity of the ministry, the initial efforts of the nuns have multiplied. The Kino Border Initiative provides food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention to thousands of people every year. They have added educational programs to teach migrants about human rights and to teach American citizens about the complex realities of the border, welcoming groups for educational border immersion experiences and even drawing the attention of international media. They have networked with other non-government organizations as well as with governmental institutions in both the United States and Mexico, promoting creative problem-solving around critical migration issues.

In all of these imaginative ways, they give witness to the Good News of reconciliation and communion in Christ by embodying it in their practices of service. As Samuel Wells explains, there is no greater testimony to the truth of the Gospel:

Narrative and practices form witnesses—disciples who embody the Church’s life in prayer and service. These witnesses are the Church’s truth claim—it has no purchase on truth that is detached from the transformation of lives and communities brought about by its narrative and practices. Individuals are not the location of theological reflection, but they can be the symbols and narrative and sacramental transformation. Their changed lives embody the hope of the community. They are the most visible face of the Church, the most public ambassadors of God.[24]

Thus, the community of witness at the Kino Border Initiative, grounded in the Eucharistic life of the Church, serves as “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor 5:17–20), who, entrusted with “the ministry of reconciliation,” give witness to the fact that Christ has torn down the dividing walls between us, so that migrants can be welcomed, not as “strangers and sojourners” but as “fellow citizens and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:13–19). The border wall remains a prominent icon of nation-state politics, but the comedor provides a window into another reality, the ultimate reality of communion with God and with humankind. If Santa Muerte represents the drama of greed and violence that Daniel Groody calls a “border of death,”[25] then the mural of Christ the Migrant who shares table fellowship with the poor in the comedor points towards the drama of life, reconciliation, and peace. As Meyers and Enns state boldly, the U.S.-Mexico “border may be sacred to many in our nation-state, but it represents a theological dilemma for a Church that is supposed to be an undivided world house. The gospel of Ephesians is unequivocal. In Christ this wall cannot stand.”[26] The practices of the Catholic community at the Kino Border Initiative reject the violent drama of the border wall, improvising instead out of the Eucharistic drama of reconciliation in Christ.

Featured Photo: The Last Supper (Nogales, Sonora, Mexico); used with permission of the Kino Border Initiative.

[1] Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Brazos Press, 2004), 54.

[2] Ibid., 46.

[3] Wells, Improvisation, chapter 4, 59–70 and 213–214.

[4] Ibid., 53.

[5] Ibid., 69.

[6] Wells, Improvisation, 83.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ched Myers and Elaine Enns, Ambassadors of Reconciliation, Vol. 1, New Testament Reflections on Restorative Justice and Peacemaking (Orbis, 2009), 82.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See the U.S. Border Patrol Website (accessed May 3, 2013).

[11] Perla Trevizo, “Discovery of Crossers’ Bodies Now at Lowest Level in 10 Years” in Arizona Daily Star (February 21, 2013; accessed May 3, 2013).

[12] For a comprehensive study of Santa Muerte, see R. Andrew Chesnut’s recent book Devoted to Death, the Skeleton Saint (Oxford, 2012).

[13] Excerpt of Ricardo Ceratto’s song El sol nace para todos, often played as a welcome song in the comedor, translation my own.

[14] See this New York Times article on the relationship between corn subsidies, NAFTA, and Mexican agriculture (accessed May 5, 2013).

[15] Meyers and Enns, Ambassadors of Reconciliation, 117–118.

[16] CELAM, Medellín Documents, Justice and Peace.

[17] This article describes an assassination that occurred during my time as a volunteer with the Kino Border Initiative (accessed May 5, 2013). This article describes the killing of a sixteen-year-old Mexican boy who was shot through the border fence by a U.S. Border Patrol agent on October 10, 2012. In the last several years at least twenty people have been shot by Border Patrol agents, six of which have been cross-border shootings (accessed May 5, 2013).

[18] CELAM, Medellín, Peace II.14.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] See Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation (Orbis, 2011), 112–120.

[23] Here I would like to draw attention to other practices along the border that are also formed by this biblical and sacramental vision of reconciliation. There are a number of sites where a Mass is celebrated by placing altars on both sides of the border wall (for example at El Paso, Texas and Anapra, New Mexico), demonstrating that unity in the Eucharist transcends divisions at the borders of nation-states. Also, celebrations such as Las Posadas, which enacts the story of the Holy Family seeking a room in the inn and represents migrants seeking hospitality in a foreign land, are celebrated in a number of border towns, including in Tijuana and Nogales, Mexico.

[24] Wells, Improvisation, 41.

[25] Daniel G. Groody, Border of Death, Valley of Life: An Immigrant Journey of Heart and Spirit (Rowmand & Littlefield, 2001).

[26] Meyers and Enns, Ambassadors of Reconciliation, 118.

Esther Terry

Esther Terry is the Program Director of Camino, a new initiative of STEP (Satellite Theological Education Program) in the Institute for Church Life for online theological formation in Spanish