The Wall is the Altar in Mexico: My Experience on PLNU’s Border Pilgrimage 

U.S./Mexico Border Wall beginning in the ocean. Photo by Sydney Brammer

There I was, my forehead pressed against an 18-foot tall metal stem of the border wall that separates the United States and Mexico. My feet are on the ground of Friendship Park, a historic site where Border churches of the U.S. and Mexico used to meet to bask in the glory of God together. My hands hugged each side of this industrialized trunk; my eyes pierced between the stems as I looked through to No Man’s Land and an even taller 30-foot wall. Then further through that, miles of land until faded structures that were downtown San Diego came into focus — a place people pray to reach; a place I call home.

As we walked up to Friendship Park, a man wearing a black shirt and shorts with a backpack on, jumped onto a stem of the wall, hugged it and began climbing. I stood in amazement as bystanders cheered him on as he made his way to the top of the wall and over in about three minutes.

He crossed over to the U.S. and was quickly stopped by Border Patrol. I assumed he was seeking asylum because he walked up to the driver’s side of the vehicle peacefully and conversed with the patrol agent. 

What did it mean to witness what hundreds of people in Mexico do daily? This is their resort to seek safety or escape things like poverty and violence. I have no idea what that’s like.

On March 23, 2024, I walked across the U.S./Mexico border with a backpack, jeans, tennis shoes and a warm jacket in preparation for rain. I spent the weekend in the country’s second-largest city, Tijuana with the Point Loma Nazarene University Honors Program I’m a part of. 

We traveled with our Honors Global Christianity professor Jennifer Guerra-Aldana and Border Pilgrimage Director Jeff Jimenez to experience Mexico’s culture and religious life. Yet, what I took away from this experience was much more than that — I was educated on the reality of the border; I was spiritually moved; I was ambivalent. 

The Border Pilgrimage has been happening once a semester for about 30 years. The program’s purpose is to allow students to take advantage of what it means to live in a border city. 

“Being able to experience different perspectives and be honest about what’s going on [in Mexico is why we do this],” said Jimenez. 

We began our journey on a 20-minute drive to the U.S. Border Patrol San Diego Sector in Imperial Beach. Dan Anderson, a 2006 PLNU graduate and Border Patrol agent, shared his perspective about why he does this work and what it’s like. 

According to Anderson, the many “push/pull” factors that contribute to people wanting to illegally immigrate to the U.S. include escaping violence and poverty and finding their families as well as drug smuggling and sex trafficking. 

As a Christian in law enforcement, Anderson described the balance of representing God and enforcing the country’s laws. He believes the laws align with Christian beliefs, “one nation under God,” he said.

“If we don’t have good people in law enforcement, it opens doors for bad people to do stuff,” Anderson said. “I believe I’m a compassionate person.”

Agents, on many occasions, have drug smuggling; they’ve caught sex traffickers with cars full of women — they’ve saved lives and stopped evil. They’ve also had to turn orphan children away attempting to seek asylum and physically chase people down to deport them back to Mexico. I think the border protects us from potential evil, but I found myself wishing for a better system to protect those in Mexico.

“It’s important to have Christians in law enforcement,” Anderson said. “We’re here to uphold the law whether we agree with it or not.”

I took every word Anderson said closely. It was important to hear what he had to say from the government’s perspective before crossing the border myself. 

After about an hour of learning about his personal experience as a patrol agent, Anderson escorted us to Imperial State Beach, where we walked past a “No Public Access” sign and stood in the brush that immigrants have hid in after jumping the wall. 

Imperial State Beach with the view of the border wall on Mar. 23, 2024.

Photo by Sydney Brammer

I felt small when looking to my left and seeing the two border walls miles away, and to my right, miles of dormant land. In an area with an abundance of bushes, trees and dirt, Anderson explained a time when around 30 immigrants hid in this space and several agents tracked them down and brought them back to Mexico.

We returned to the bus which brought us near the border crossing and it already started to look different. Buildings had cracked paint and spray art, everything was condensed — buildings, street lanes and everything in between — garbage all over the streets. There was a protest for Palestine along the sidewalk to the border crossing. We passed the huge swarm of people as we began our pilgrimage to Mexico. 

Walking through the border took about five minutes. They barely checked my bag and our passports. Jimenez took out of his backpack a Ziploc bag containing 24 passports, pulled the stack of passports out and handed it to the officer. 

The officer asked how many of us there were, and Jimenez said, “Venticuatro” (24 in Spanish). He counted the passports, then let us go — that was it.

Walking in a pack as large as ours felt embarrassing. We were stared at, not only because most of us were obviously foreigners, but because there was an obnoxious amount of us. 

As we made our way into Tijuana, we passed a mariachi band on our left and the National Guard on their military vehicle to our right. Amid all the life happening on this street, they drove by with their rifles visible so casually. 

We walked through a pathway sandwiched between vendors on each side, shoulder-to-shoulder, of people trying to sell us things. Smells of weed and tacos entered my nose as I smiled and nicely said “no” to the entrepreneurs.

We walked two miles before reaching the bus that would drive us around for the weekend. As I stepped onto the bus, a rather large Playboy Bunny sticker on the last window at the end of the bus came into view and so did dancing silhouettes of naked women on the windshield. I don’t know what the people walking by must’ve thought as a herd of college students got on this bus, but it probably wasn’t that we were with the church.

On the inside, there were red poles with a shimmer to them and forest-green curtains along all the windows. We laughed at our assumptions about the bus and asked Jimenez and Professor Guerra-Aldana later in the weekend if they knew what the bus looked like before they hired the driver. Jimenez said, “It’s all a part of the pilgrimage.” That quickly became a default line to explain a lot of what we saw. 

Driving through traffic in Tijuana was nothing I’d experienced before. Honking is normalized and traffic systems are confusing. We would drive diagonally across roads where traffic was also going straight. Traffic was expected to yield based on a faded white line that apparently implies “stop.” 

Lanes are very narrow, we were an inch away from other cars driving by. At a stoplight, I looked out my window to the left and saw a man wiping the hood of the car next to us before it turned green. He waved off the driver as he drove away. I wondered how long he would do that for and how much money he earned.

We made it to La Casa del Migrante (The Migrant’s House) later in the afternoon, a safe place for people in movement to stay for up to 45 days. Some traveled miles to get there, everyone coming from different stories, crossing paths for a moment in time. 

“Jesus Christ was also a migrant,” said a volunteer who gave us a tour. 

La Casa is the longest-lasting shelter in Tijuana, according to the volunteer. It’s funded by churches and people who once stayed there which helps pay for a doctor, a teacher, a resources employee and a childcare program to benefit the residents when they leave in saving money and finding jobs. 

According to the volunteer, Tijuana is a special place because people from all over the world come for different reasons such as to cross the border or evangelize. 

La Casa houses 140 people at maximum capacity. It looks like an apartment complex with a square structure, several floors high with an open roof. We sat in the center for dinner, I looked up and saw gray clouds moving with the wind, passing over us. Pink papers hung on the rail of the second-floor spelling out “DIA DE LA MUJER,” Women’s Day in English, in honor of International Women’s Day. The women of La Casa wrote about what it meant for them to be there on the papers.

At the dinner table, a few girls in my Honors program made bracelets with the children who stayed there. It was beautiful to see the joy in this moment, finding each other in our attempt to break the language barrier with our broken Spanish. One of the children made a few bracelets, all of which were for us. Her favorite color is purple.

We then traveled to the Casa Manresa Monastery, where we stayed the night. The drive was similar to what it would be like to experience turbulence on an airplane or a rollercoaster where every movement is unexpected. The route to the monastery was through a neighborhood with a street the same width as the bus — we barely fit. 

Looking out the window to my left, in the dark evening, I held my breath and chewed my fingernails as we slipped past parked cars just inches away, going up one of the steepest hills I’ve ever seen. The bus was also a stickshift. 

After about 15 minutes of this experience, we made it to the top of the hill where the monastery was and we applauded the driver. It’s all a part of the pilgrimage. 

After settling in with our assigned roommates, we spent the night playing the games “Mafia” and “Signs.” I’ve never laughed so hard with my Honors Program; it was nice to connect more with them in the three months we have left together in the program.

In the morning, we spent time in the chapel where a rainbow appeared over the cross, coming out of the ocean — God’s promise after it rained all night. We were then split into small groups where we reflected on the pilgrimage so far. 

View of Tijuana and the rainbow from inside the monastery chapel.

Photo by Sydney Brammer, Mar. 24, 2024.

“Agreeing on shared humanity,” Jimenez said. “It’s a good thing we all have different perspectives and [to not be] afraid to open our hearts with one another.”

We made our way to our last destination: Border Church. We got dropped off near the boardwalk, where we walked along the water to our left, what looked like abandoned buildings to our right and the border wall in front of us. It was beautiful weather — the sun was shining and there was a hydrating ocean breeze.

The wall began in the ocean, where years of rust were built on the stems due to the salt water. “Creation itself protests [the border],” said Professor Guerra-Aldana. 

U.S./Mexico Border Wall beginning in the ocean.

Photo by Sydney Brammer, Mar. 24, 2024

I couldn’t take my eyes off of it, I’d never been that close to it; whereas the people in Mexico see it every day — it’s a part of their lives.

The Border Church consisted of a table for a television for worship lyrics, a canopy for shade and to shield rain and several seats for members. The church exemplifies the idea that people make the church, not a building because they didn’t need a structure to come together.

Friendship Park is the area where the U.S. and Mexico border churches have met for 30 years. For five years now, the U.S. Border Church hasn’t been able to come to the wall to worship with Mexico. Yet, the U.S. church still meets about five miles from the border and connects with Mexico through Facebook Live for the first minutes of each service before doing their separate services.

I sat in the front row, listening to the pastor preach with passion about separated families due to the wall. He explained “pinky kisses,” which is how loved ones used to “kiss;” they’d touch pinkies through the wall before a double-wired fence was built blocking any physical contact between people. 

View of the wired fence directly following the border wall. 

Photo by Elena Yoder, Mar. 24, 2024.

The pastor asked, “What does friendship mean to you?” as we were sitting in Friendship Park. Someone said “Love.”

“You are all friends, right?” the pastor asked my group. We nodded. “Stand up. Hug one another.”

I am not a hugger, but we all turned to one another and began to hug. I felt the love of all the people that have once stood in this space before me. I felt the love of Jesus at that moment.

He then called us forward to the wall. “The wall is the altar, here,” the pastor said. Everyone in the church lined up at the border. My forehead touching the metal, my palms against each side, my eyes piercing through the wall, No Man’s Land and the second 30-foot wall, to the faint sight of downtown San Diego. 

Photo by Sydney Brammer, Mar. 24, 2024.

While gusts of wind blew through me, the pastor prayed, “God, You are here.” I looked out at the city of San Diego which I’ve walked through multiple times and thought, Mexico is here; don’t ever forget about them.