Praying in the Shadow of the Wall between the US and Mexico – A Grant Denied

Below is a project I applied to a wonderful institution. I intended to work with immigrants and immigration under the Trump era during my sabbatical. For whatever reason, the grant was not worth of their support. I have nothing to say against this institution and the people who made the decision. They know better! Some of the reasons I am sharing it here are the following:

. scholars often share only their victories and successes and I want to show that we get so many “nos” and lots of frustrations;

. I am sharing this not to ask for pity but to say that the line between the personal and not personal, the private and the public for a scholar is often so thin and blurred;

. As a minority scholar, when things like that happen the impostor syndrome just takes over my heart, my soul, my mind and my body;

. It is good for my kids to learn that their dad also doesn’t get all he wants as I tell them they cannot get all they want;

. It is good for me to learn that I am more than my projects, books and accomplishments;

. as my Buddhist brother said: if you get it or not it will be a blessing.


Below you see the soundtrack of my feelings, the project I wrote and a note sent to me buy another friend who came as a healing prayer.




  • Praying in the Shadow of the Wall between the US and Mexico

Main Question: What does and should truthful, effective Christian prayer look like in the face of both the proposed US-Mexico border wall, and US government-sponsored politics of fear and hatred that condemn immigrant communities? If the Christian Church does not respond to the ideas, symbols, realities, and rhetoric surrounding the wall, it not only betrays its core identity and mission, but also becomes increasingly irrelevant to people’s daily lives.

Project Summary: US President Donald Trump’s rhetoric of hatred includes the promise to build a wall along the US-Mexico border. Now only in the planning stages, talk about the wall has already had significant consequences, not only for citizens of and immigrants to the United States, but for the global population as well. Even as a symbol, the wall influences the nation’s political structures, economic desires and policies, social organizations, cultural imagination and ecological practices. My project wrestles with these complexities, and considers the implications of the wall’s presence for the Christian faith, both locally and globally. The Church must respond theologically, pastorally, politically, and missionally to the wall and all that it represents. In doing so, it must build upon promising sources in liturgical history and chart a new course in liturgical practices in churches and liturgical theology within the liturgical field, so that Christians may find new ways of living the faith around issues of immigration and immigrants. This new path will transform the Church’s liturgical space and practices, so that the Church is more than a privileged place of worship disconnected from lived realities. In studying the effects of the wall and “live” Christian responses to it, my project will provide resources for developing this new theology and praxis. During visits to areas affected by the wall, I will collect and create liturgical and artistic resources for Christian churches in the US, recording my interactions and experiences on a daily basis first through a public blog, and later with a book.

Proposal Narrative: What does and should truthful, effective Christian prayer look like in the face of the proposed US-Mexico border wall? This symbol of officially sanctioned hatred and xenophobia, directed at society’s least of these, is grounded in fear and weakness. Because Christian churches should serve as the home and compassionate voice for “the least of these,” they should provide liturgical resources and effective ways for this population to respond to every threat represented by the wall. This project will provide those resources.

Rationale: Christian life grows from the relationship between the lex orandi and the lex credendi, the law of prayer and the law of faith. As the grammar of Christian faith, prayer shapes our beliefs and actions. I will investigate how the lex orandi under a wall of division and hatred can help expand the Church’s lex credendi. To pray is to know our liturgies: of the Church, of the world, and of the neighbor. In order to know those liturgies, our prayers must engage in conversation with real life– here, the real life of immigrants to and within the United States.

However, churches are often silent about or unaware of the real problems immigrants face in this country– and even if they do possess factual knowledge about the situation, feel that they are without agency to address it, or don’t know how to pray or act within or about it. Most of the written liturgical sources (i.e., prayer- and songbooks) churches use in their services contemplate the universal values of the Christian faith, often via liturgies that are mostly ahistorical. Hence, these churches often do not have the language needed to deal with contemporary, concrete issues. The lex orandi is trapped within a fixed lex credendi. For any liturgical theology to respond to the situations faced by immigrants (and refugees), we not only have to expand both the breadth and depth of our beliefs and our prayers in order to welcome and necessarily include these communities. We must also and unavoidably adopt political perspectives that view immigrants and refugees as our brothers and sisters– an expansion of our theologies that will include not only human emotions, but ecological and economic systems as well. Such liturgical and personal transformation will foster forms of thought and practice able to support the church’s mission and ecclesiology beyond merely complacent multiculturalism. This project examines and constructs just such liturgical and theological forms of thinking, and suggests as well the sorts of concrete actions that should emerge from them.

Our current political climate makes clear what ensues when our liturgies and our language are unable or unwilling to address the concrete situations of immigrants and refugees. The racism and xenophobia often found in the United States has only been encouraged by President Trump’s hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric. Trump continues to promise to build a wall between Mexico and the United States, a project central to racist screeds and immigrant scapegoating that have denounced Latinos as robbers, rapists, drug dealers, and assassins. As his followers continue to chant, “Build the wall,” and as hate groups feel empowered to raise their voices and their fists against those they consider “un-American,” minority populations are targeted with hate speech and threats of (or sometimes actual) violence. Such activity is condoned by the president’s actions, including his pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his comments in the wake of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which he blamed “many sides” for what occurred.

In order to pray at the border and in the shadow of the wall, Christians must make use of artistic, cultural, social, economic and political resources that confront the realities of immigration and the threat of this wall. We also require forceful theological and pastoral responses to these realities, as well as biblical resources with which to confront them. Scholars such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Daniel Groody, Jason De Leon and others (see bibliography) have made welcome attempts to provide such resources– but their work has so far not engaged our liturgies or our liturgical theologies in an integrated way. Often, these scholars do not look beyond their own disciplinary fields, with the consequence that there are few liturgical resources available for lay people in the pews, and very few books that deal with liturgical theology and immigration (Berger 2012, Carvalhaes 2013). Christian churches suffer from a profound lack of resources when they attempt to think about and practice ways of responding to Anzaldúa’s assertion that “The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta (is an open wound) where the third world grates against the first and bleeds” (Anzaldúa 1987). Thus, my project aims to remedy this lack by creating liturgical resources, building on and creating new spiritual practices for threatened immigrant populations, as well as ways for them to respond liturgically to their lived situations.

Members of Paoli Mennonite Fellowship in Paoli, Ind., pray at the border wall in Douglas, Ariz., during a 2016 MCC Borderlands learning tour.The MCC U.S. Immigration Education National Program office and MCC regional staff, along with partner Frontera de Cristo, coordinate learning tours to the border between Mexico and the U.S. to bring attention to faith-based responses to migration, militarization of the border, the effect of the border wall to communities on both sides of the border and the tragedy of migrant deaths. MCC photo/Saulo Padilla 

Generated by IJG JPEG Library

Plan: I will conduct this project during my year-long sabbatical from teaching. As reflected in detail in the timeline below, I will begin by spending a month taking language courses in a Spanish-speaking country, in order to bring my Spanish up to a level adequate enough to conduct interviews in the field. I will then spend two months visiting different US and Mexican cities separated from each other by the wall in Texas, Arizona, and California, most likely El Paso/Ciudad Juarez, McAllen (Rio Grande), Nogales/Nogales, and San Diego/Tijuana. I will visit families, local churches, social organizations, artistic collectives, and immigrant jails on both sides of the wall, and will collect materials there to further this project. Some of the organizations I plan to visit include Operation Streamline, The Abuse Documentation Working Group, Chuckson Water Protectors, Mariposas Sin Fronteras, People Helping People, and Scholarships A-Z. My interviews will be aimed at understanding how relationships between and among local communities, as well as those communities’ relationships with the US population at large, are affected, created, and changed in light of portions of the wall that have already been constructed, and of plans for extending it. I will ask interviewees to discuss what the wall means to them personally, to the nation, and to the world; why they believe the wall is there; what they believe can and/or should be done about it; whether their churches pray about the wall and whether their liturgies are related to it; and how they believe Christians should pray about this wall. These interviews will be transcribed, coded, and analyzed, after which I will work with local artists to create liturgical material that addresses life in the shadow of the wall. By the end of August 2019, I also intend to have completed a book manuscript based on my experiences in the field, and already have a signed contract with Cascade Books to publish this project.[1]

As a liberation theologian, I believe that the concrete conditions and actions of lived existence are more important than abstract theology. Thus, my core intention is to understand how the wall and the action and rhetoric surrounding it function within the daily lives of those living in its shadow. To do so, I will conduct semi-structured interviews while in the field, a process that will both include set questions and allow for additional conversational input or thoughts from participants. Once I have finished gathering information, I will have the interviews transcribed and coded for use in compiling liturgical materials and my book manuscript. I am currently discussing and seeking official approval for my project with the Institutional Review Board for Research on Human Subjects at Union Theological Seminary.


Dissemination: My target audience for this project encompasses Christian churches within the United States. Although this project focuses on particular communities threatened by a particular situation, the way in which the entire Church confronts or ignores that situation is crucial to its being able to declare itself Christian in any meaningful way. As I travel, I will make my experiences available to the general public by updating my blog on a daily basis. This public resource will include a collection of videos, testimonies of interviewees, sermons, liturgies, prayers, rituals, songs, and art that can help all churches to think theologically about immigration and to engage with the idea and reality of the wall in their worship services. Once travel has been completed, the information gathered during this time will be compiled into a book dealing with the liturgical theology of immigration from Latinxs perspectives. That book will be aimed at both scholarly and lay audiences, for use in the classroom and within churches.


Impact: As an immigrant-citizen, both the metaphor and the reality of the wall affect me deeply, perhaps much more so than they do native and/or majority populations within the US. Having lived and worked with other immigrant communities, I have seen the painful effects that the rhetoric and the concrete realities that emerge out of it have on the lives of individuals and communities. This project forms part of my central commitment to the marginalized– primarily the poor and immigrants– an essential part of which involves allowing those communities to speak in their own voices.

As a pastor and scholar of religion, it is also my conviction that Christian churches should be the place and voice of compassion for the least of these in our societies, providing a buffer between immigrant communities and governments. Jesus had no place to lay his head (Matthew 8:20), and following him means that we are all undocumented migrants, traveling from one place to another with our beliefs and doubts, fears and hopes. But while we are sent into this world as migrants, we do not belong to this world (John 17:14); we are challenged to live “in reverent fear during the time of our exile” (I Peter 1:17), without a “lasting city, but… looking for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13.14). Being foreigners and exiles ourselves, the church must act as a place where all people are welcomed and cared for. The Holy Spirit helps us to pray, and to be more attentive to the dire situation of all migrants– but if we ignore that call, the church sets aside the very identity that grounds it, and lapses into irrelevance and an inability to affect or speak to people about their actual life. In speaking with and creating living liturgies for and from border communities, I intend to call the church back to its central conviction of who we are.

The connections with everyday people and other Latinxs scholars that ground this project will also broaden and strengthen my role both as a public theologian and as a teacher at Union Theological Seminary. Additionally, my research will expand my ability to engage with students at the Hispanic Summer Program, where I have taught preaching and worship for the last five years. The students and readers with whom I engage will continue the work of shaping and living liturgies that are both true to their own experiences and to the work of the Christian Church.



Bibliography – More than 30 pages of books collected


Resources – More than 120 pages of resources collected


[1] Book contract available upon request.


A healing prayer from a friend after I received the letter:

“Looking at the mosaic of your life, what percentage is yes, and what percentage no?  You amaze in part because you are continually knocking at the door, continually approaching the tables of the money lenders, continually attending the conferences of the well fed and the sit-downs with the comfortable, always with the same message: that life, true life, is out there beyond their control! What remains for them at last is solely the ability to say the word that forms first and forever in their mouths: no. Politely pronounced and gently delivered, but no. You are hereby invited to be faithful somewhere else!”