A church draws families together across the US-Mexico border. A wall pushes them further apart.

TIJUANA, Mexico – The Church of the Border, or La Iglesia Fronteriza, is not a building – or if it is, it only has one wall. Instead, it is a weekly, bilingual, interdenominational service held simultaneously on both sides of the US-Mexico border.

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On the Tijuana side, under El Faro, the city’s iconic white lighthouse, a group of about 50 gathers each week. Many are people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador fleeing gang violence or poverty. The church is a place where they come to pray, get help with asylum claims, and find solidarity with others hoping to reach the United States. Others are deported from America, mostly people who came from Mexico as children and were sent back as adults to a country they hardly knew.

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A couple embraced while attending a Border Church service. (Erin Clark/Globe Staff)

Almost by definition, the people gathered in Tijuana are in a state of flux. Guillermo Navarrete, the church’s lay pastor, looks at them sometimes and sees invisible questions hanging over their heads, he said. “What will happen? What about me?”

Through the gaps in the wall, the other half of the community – Americans who join in solidarity or because of a family connection in Mexico – is visible only in San Diego, about a hundred meters away across the no-man’s land monitored by cameras mounted on tall white towers. The barrier, consisting of rusted steel shafts, runs down the coast and into the Pacific Ocean.

Today, because of the distance that separates them, the two halves of the community mainly communicate via WhatsApp or Facebook Live. But when the group began holding irregular services in the early 2000s, the collection of fences and dead spaces and watchtowers we call “The Wall” was just one fence, with spaces large enough to pass the sacrament between.

A family stands on the San Diego side of the border wall, looking into Tijuana. Visitors are kept about 50 feet away, and families and friends are prohibited from making contact. (Erin Clark/Globe Staff)

Eventually, a new fence with a mesh barrier was installed, and congregants on both sides could only exchange a “pinky kiss” with the pads of their tiniest fingers. A second fence has also been installed on the US side, about 50 meters from the first, so that congregants and others coming to meet family and friends across the border can barely see or hear each other, let alone touch.

“The body and blood of Christ have become scarce,” said Seth David Clark, the church’s pastoral director on the American side, who has written a book about the church.

Last Sunday, a family from the Mexican state of Colima, which has been plagued by gang violence in recent years, stayed in Tijuana for a month, staying at an immigrant shelter. They come to church every week, praying for help with their asylum claim. “We are Christians,” Maria Lourdes said, gesturing toward her husband and young adult children. “We always turn to God.”

Guillermo Navarrete, the lay priest of the church, prayed for his congregation.

(Erin Clark/Globe Staff)

Other congregants are deportees, people who legally cannot return to the United States, who are drawn to a bilingual Mass and sometimes something deeper. “When I found Border Church, I was looking for something to fill that void left behind from leaving the country that had been my home for the last 50 years,” said Robert Vivar, who came to the United States at age 6 and was deported after he was caught stealing Sudapad, which can be used to make methamphetamines. He expected to be sent to rehab. Instead, he was expelled.

Vivar’s position was recently vacated, so he now lives in the United States, but he still sometimes attends Mass in Mexico, where he helps with church activities. “Something magical is happening here,” he said, “which fills your spirit with joy.”

Witnesses prayed along the border wall. (Erin Clark/Globe Staff)

At the same time, Vivar said, it’s hard to see how the growing wall has drawn people further away. When he first started arriving, he felt as if separated families could still remain families, thanks to “the opportunity for them to be able to meet here at the border wall.” Now, “they can’t go up to the border wall and have an intimate conversation, or even share a stranger’s kiss.”

Every week, Pastor Navarre sees families arrive who don’t know about the second fence, who have traveled long ways expecting to meet their loved ones. That Sunday, two sisters originally from Honduras wept in the sand on the side of Tijuana. They came expecting to hug their mother, who they hadn’t seen in years, but she was barely seen on the San Diego side. They want to be reunited with her in the United States, one sister said, but “we don’t have money to pay the smuggler.”

A woman cried while FaceTiming her family on the other side of the border wall. She was unaware that she would no longer be able to touch her family at the wall that separates Tijuana from San Diego. (Erin Clark/Globe Staff)

That afternoon, the reading was from Psalm 23, where God, in the guise of a shepherd, leads his flock through the valley of the shadow of death. Towards the end of Navarre’s service, members of the congregation approached the wall and pressed against it, thrusting their hands or shoulders into the gaps, and prayed. In English And in Spanish, the two sides called each other across the distance:

God, here we stand and confess.

Dios, aquí estamos y hacemos nuestra confesión.

With our hands on this wall we thank you.

Con nuestras manos en este muro te confesamos.

At the end of the ceremony, witnesses from each side turned from the wall to each other to offer the sign of peace. Instead of a handshake, they pressed the tips of their pinky fingers together.

La Paz de Cristo.

A man climbed partway up the Mexican side of the border wall for a photo opportunity in Tijuana. (Erin Clark/Globe Staff)

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  • reporters: Julianne Benbo, Deity Kohli, Hannah Kruger, Emma Platoff, Annalisa Quinn, Jenna Russell, Mark Shanahan, Lysandra Villa Huerta
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