The author’s photos of the Berlin Wall.

Holy Week: time to consider the truth about walls

By the Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell

For he [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.
— Ephesians 2:14

Twenty years ago this spring, I spent Holy Week traveling through Western Europe during a semester abroad in England. While in Berlin, I spent an afternoon walking alongside the wall. It had only been eight years since November 1989, and yet much of the wall remained, sections almost a mile long.

Visiting the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, I learned the ways people tried to escape East Germany to freedom in West Berlin, how loved ones forbidden to cross the wall were hidden inside car cushions and over wheel wells, every moment the fear of being caught, imprisoned or killed a reality. Even at 20 years old, walking through Brandenburg Gate, I understood the importance of my journey — something that could not have happened 10 years before. Over 28 years, two months and seven days, 173 people were shot and killed trying to cross the wall.

The divisions of East and West were still apparent in 1998. I stayed with a friend who had been an exchange student at my high school. The apartment that she shared with a handful of roommates was old concrete Soviet block housing in the former East Berlin. A narrow elevator — the size of a closet — ascended six floors to the apartment comprised of a kitchen, a bathroom without a shower, and two other small rooms. Rugs covered the hard, cold cement floor. The East was where the poor lived. When we shopped for apartments in West Berlin, we noted hardwood floors, airy rooms, sun-filled windows and updated appliances. One apartment was crowded with other young Berliners hoping to snap it up. East was still much cheaper but a longer commute to the university and to work.

As of Jan. 28, the Berlin Wall has been down for the same length of time as it was up. According to The Economist, we are now in Berlin’s “post-post wall era.” Sections of the wall remain, along with subtle differences, but overall, the city is moving past the time of the wall. Healing has occurred, and a generation is growing up without the wall.

The U.S. border wall at Tecate, Mexico.

As we pass this milestone, another wall along the U.S. southern border comes to mind. It is difficult to know how many people have died crossing the border from Mexico into the United States. The U.S. Border Patrol documented 6,023 deaths between 2000 and 2014, although only a fraction can be accounted for and the number may be an estimated four times higher. Exposure was the cause of most of the deaths. The number of dead is staggering.

At my previous congregation’s biennial trip to our sister church and orphanage in Tecate, Mexico, I was reminded of the Berlin Wall. The graffiti on the southern side of the U.S.-Mexico border was similar to the graffiti on the western side in Berlin. Everywhere were expressions of pain and some messages calling for the wall’s destruction. The hills rise to the north above the wall, where U.S. border agents peer down the hillsides, long guns visible from almost a mile away. Even as a white U.S. citizen, fear pricked along my neck every time I saw the agents’ SUVs. The sun glistening off their guns above us in the hills was a reminder to stay down on our side of the wall.

The Berlin Wall was up 28 years, two months and seven days. It has taken this long to enter the post-post wall period. How long will it take for healing in places like Tecate, where every day children are reminded about the side to which they belong? How long will it take families to heal when their loved ones are deported?

Holy Week is a week of remembrance, the final journey of Jesus to Jerusalem. We remember how the crowds shouted, “Hosanna! Save us!” We remember Jesus entering the city, not on a warhorse but a donkey. Overturning the tables in the temple and challenging the authorities, he was betrayed by one of his own, arrested and crucified as a criminal of the state.

More than 2,000 years, and we continue to remember the details. We could easily focus only on the empty tomb, but we wouldn’t be telling the whole story. We wouldn’t be telling the truth of Jesus’ resurrection without his betrayal, without his arrest, without his death on the cross. We wouldn’t be telling the truth without admitting that among his own disciples was the one who betrayed him, the one who denied him, the one who doubted him. We wouldn’t be telling the truth if we don’t see ourselves in the story. We aren’t telling the truth when we don’t admit our complicities in state violence.

We can tell the story of the Berlin Wall, but we are only telling part if we don’t tell the story of the wall that our own country is building. The myth of the wall is one of protection, of keeping out drugs and violence. The truth of the wall, when you stand on the other side, is violence. When you see border patrol agents staring down, reminding you to stay on that side of the wall, you know the true story.

Christ came to break down walls, not build them up. Christ came to remove distinctions between us as Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free. Christ tore down the dividing wall of death forever. We must weigh the cost of the walls of division that we have built and are continuing to build.

The Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell is pastor of Queen Anne Baptist Church, Seattle, Wash., and ministry associate of social media for the Evergreen Association of American Baptist Churches USA.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.