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Methodists participate in movement to preserve border park (UM News)

March 21, 2023

Friends of Friendship Park, led by the Rev. John Fanestil, a United Methodist pastor, continues to defend the preservation of the oceanfront park, located on the border between Mexico and the U.S.

Supporters say the park is at risk of being seriously affected by construction of new 30-foot-high walls that hinder the vision and access to those on both sides. 

The construction was initially proposed by the Trump administration and had been paused, but on Jan. 17, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas signed an order to resume construction of the walls. Construction began March 14. Customs and Border Protection say the wall replacement is needed due to deterioration of the primary and secondary barrier, which poses a threat to border patrol agents and immigrants, CBS-8 reports

Friendship Park, which straddles Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, has been the meeting place for thousands of families from both sides of the border. For decades, visitors could easily converse and touch through a fence. Binational activities and worship services have taken place — including a border church that currently operates during weekends. 

The park was inaugurated in 1971 under the administration of President Richard Nixon, by First Lady Pat Nixon. At the time, the first lady asked her security team to cut the barbed wire that marked the international boundary, saying, “I hope there won’t be a fence too long here.” 

Since then, the separation has been increased with an 18-foot-high fence and progressive closure of public access to the park on the U.S. side. The proposed walls will almost double the height of the current ones.

“It would go against the original spirit of this park and would affect one of the greatest and noblest objectives of this space, which is the visual encounter of human beings separated by the rigor and excluding legalisms typical of borders, protected by security,” Fanestil said.

In February, Friends of Friendship Park published an open letter addressed to President Biden, where business, social and religious leaders requested the government to modify its plans to build walls that would affect the integrity of the park. 

The group also held a protest during Biden’s March 13 visit to San Diego to meet with the prime ministers of the United Kingdom and Australia. 

According to the letter, the Biden administration had stopped the construction project, to open a consultation period in which “more than 300 religious leaders, 200 educators, almost 100 organizational leaders, 80 construction professionals and 60 medical professionals” have participated and made various proposals.

Fanestil is an elder from the California-Pacific Conference, where he received a ministerial appointment in 2006 to work with Via International, which acts as the fiscal endorser for the Friends of Friendship Park coalition.

The California-Pacific Conference has had several initiatives in promotion and advocacy of the park over the years. Although it has not been an official program at the conference level, a connection has been maintained with the organizations and activities that take place in the park.

According to Fanestil, the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries sent missionaries to serve in the border area in the past. Currently, several United Methodist clergy from the conference participate in The Border Church, an ecumenical effort that brings together people on both sides of the border every Sunday to celebrate Holy Communion.

California-Pacific Conference Bishop Dottie Escobedo-Frank, who in November 2022 became the third Hispanic woman elected to the United Methodist episcopacy, will be visiting the border park and the ministry that takes place there. She is one of the signatories of the letter asking President Biden to stop the construction of the new walls.

The United Methodist Council of Bishops visited the park in May 2013. On that occasion, bishops from other parts of the world were able to learn about the situation of the southwestern border of the United States, the migratory situation and the work that churches and social organizations carry out in support to the suffering and needs of migrant families.

Fanestil said that media outlets like the San Diego Union-Tribune have covered the movement and dedicated full-page editorials in support of the preservation of the park. 

“We have received recognition from many of the families from all over the country who have been able to visit the park and see their relatives on the other side of the border,” he said. 

He said they also have been receiving the support of social and business leaders, in addition to California’s two Senators, Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein, and the office of California Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

“For the first time, we are making visible this situation of the park beyond San Diego communities and taking it to the state level,” Fanestil said.

According to Fanestil, this fight has been taking place at different levels, but after the announcement made by Mayorkas’ office, only President Biden can stop the construction.

“Taking into account the promises of (Biden’s) last electoral campaign not to build new border walls, following up on these plans that come from the past administration would be a big mistake that would harm this beneficial, good and unique space on our border,” Fanestil said.

On the Mexican side of the border, there is also a lot of interest in not affecting access and the appearance of the border with these walls. The park on the Mexican side is a well-known tourist spot in the city of Tijuana that is open to the public, and affecting visibility and access on the U.S. side would be inconvenient for families to meet and for bilateral contacts.

The Friends of Friendship Park organization has a close relationship with Mexican cultural, social and civil organizations that have developed various activities and programs for many years that take place on both sides of the border.

At the ecclesial level, there is a fluid relationship with the Methodist Church of Mexico and with other denominations that support the ministry of “El Faro Church,” as the Border Church is known in Mexico. Mexican Methodist pastors and lay leaders have led ministries in this church. 

Recently, Bishop Manuel de Ruelas, episcopal leader of the Northeast Conference of the Mexican Methodist Church, made public a letter recalling the historical importance of the park, the role it plays in promoting solidarity and bilateral support between the two countries, as well as the strengthening of the family and the values of faith through the ministries that work there.

“We think that the construction of a new 30-foot-high fence on the site in question will not help families to be reunited and fulfill one of the purposes for which this emblematic park was built. With the respect it deserves, we invite the administration of President Biden to reconsider this decision and seek other alternatives that allow families who meet in this space to continue doing so,” the letter states.

Fanestil recalls that the park “has always been a place of peace, a safe place,” with no episodes of damage or aggression in its history. 

“This is not a dangerous place, nor is it a threat to the territorial security of the country. It is a place where peace and the values of friendship, love and solidarity among human beings have always been promoted,” he said. “As Methodists, we must be committed to promote the values of our faith and this park is a symbol of friendship and good human relations between our countries, which are part of the things we believe and preach as a church.” 

Recalling the spiritual experience that John Wesley had at Aldersgate, Fanestil added, “There the ‘burning hearts’ meet and celebrate.”