The Chapel at the Border

A “cowboy priest” confronts the wall and the military presence on the banks of the Rio Grande.

Jeremy Raff

MISSION, TEXAS—About a hundred parishioners gathered for Mass at a white adobe chapel built beside the Rio Grande in 1899. Father Roy Snipes, the parish priest, tolled the rusty church bell by hand, signaling the start of a welcome-home service for migrant farmworkers and “Winter Texans”—retirees flocking back to the Rio Grande Valley for another season of warm November mornings like this. But just as Snipes began to speak, an olive-drab military helicopter—part of President Donald Trump’s troop surge at the border—drowned out his welcome message. “Grandaddy would have never believed that,” Snipes said, his white cassock billowing. “It’s like a priest saying Mass in a war zone.” The military presence only foreshadowed what might be an even starker federal presence at the chapel: La Lomita stands in the proposed path of President Trump’s border wall.

The Rio Grande Valley is the Trump administration’s top priority for new border-wall construction. The region saw 160,000 unauthorized border crossings  last year, more than any other sector, though many were families turning themselves over to officials in order to seek asylum. Customs and Border Protection maps from July 2017 showed that the agency planned to build a wall segment just yards from La Lomita, which means “little hill.” At best, the plan seemed to leave the chapel on the Mexico-facing side of the wall—a liminal “no-man’s-land” south of the wall, but north of the border itself. At worst, advocates feared that the chapel could be bulldozed. Then, on February 14, Congress funded 55 miles of new walls in the Rio Grande Valley, and wrote protections for the chapel into the bill. For a moment, La Lomita seemed safe. But then President Trump declared a national emergency to unlock more wall-building money than Congress had allowed. Administration officials claimed that the congressional restrictions don’t apply to the national-emergency funds, leaving the chapel’s future again uncertain.

CBP planned to build the wall at the base of the flood levee behind the chapel. (Jeremy Raff)

In November, I met the art professor and activist Scott Nicol at La Lomita. Nicol, who has been fighting the border wall since the George W. Bush–era Secure Fence Act, brought a large roll of measuring tape to see whether the chapel would fall within CBP’s planned “enforcement zone”—a 150-foot strip extending from the base of the wall, clear-cut of vegetation, featuring a gravel road, stadium lighting, and surveillance equipment. Starting at the base of the flood levee, where the wall would be built, Nicol unspooled the measuring tape, and reached the adobe structure after about 90 feet. The entire chapel falls within the enforcement zone, and its presence seemed clearly incompatible with CBP’s construction plans. In an email, a CBP spokesperson said the agency did not have plans to remove the chapel and is “working to minimize or avoid impact to sensitive areas such as La Lomita Chapel,” but declined to rule out the possibility. “That’s why we’re concerned that the chapel could be destroyed,” Nicol said.

That week, the government signed two contracts with a Galveston-based construction company to build eight miles of wall near La Lomita. Advocates ramped up their campaign to defend the chapel, nearby wildlife sanctuaries, and the private landowners who stood to lose their riverside property to the government. Valley residents have lost homes, backyards, and businesses to the no-man’s-land created by Bush- and Barack Obama–era walls. Pamela Taylor, a homeowner who has lived on the Mexico-facing side of the wall for a decade, deadpanned, “We live in a gated community.”

Fred Cavazos could lose his land to the border wall. (Jeremy Raff)

Fred Cavazos’s 77 acres of riverfront property has been in his family since a mid-18th-century Spanish land grant to his ancestors. Cavazos, who uses a wheelchair, rents out 30 riverfront plots for camping, fishing, and jet skiing on the Rio Grande. Three tenants are Border Patrol agents, and Father Roy Snipes docks his old motorboat there. The income, about $30,000 a year, supports Cavazos and his sister. The planned border wall would leave the property in the no-man’s-land, behind a 30-foot wall. “Who would want to lease?” Cavazos worried.  “I don’t think I’ll have any tenants left.”

Roy Snipes began teaching in an unincorporated Rio Grande Valley town in 1968. He loved “the old culture of sweet hospitality,” and saw its embodiment in La Lomita— quiet, open-air, no electricity. On his first visit, he was “impressed with the simplicity and the humility.” He imagined the band of priests on horseback who proselytized along the Rio Grande in the mid-19th century, when the border itself was brand new. A sepia-toned photograph shows seven of them dressed in black— the“Cavalry of Christ.” After six years of teaching, Snipes joined their order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and took his final vows at La Lomita in 1980.

Known locally as the “cowboy priest,” Snipes is a little like Mr. Rogers with a Stetson and a love for Lone Star, the “national beer of Texas.” These days, his horseback riding is mostly confined to the yearly citrus parade in downtown Mission, which is named after those early missionaries. Instead of a horse, Snipes drives a Suburban that permanently smells like his dozen or so rescue dogs, but he did stick a Cavalry of Christ decal on the rear door.

Roy Snipes, the “cowboy priest” (Jeremy Raff)

Most afternoons, Snipes unlocks his boat at the Cavazos dock for a sunset cruise on the Rio Grande. “We’re off like a herd of turtles,” he said on a warm fall evening, the motor coughing. Snipes waved to neighbors on both banks—to the north, Winter Texas at a trailer park, to the south, picnicking Mexican families.

Past dusk, Snipes idled above the technical, imaginary, U.S.-Mexico line—the middle of the glassy river. The chapel’s white adobe was visible through the trees, illuminated by solar lights that Snipes installed himself. “When the craziness of the world is wounding your heart, you can come here,” he said. But now it seemed as if the river and the chapel themselves needed respite.

Border-wall construction at La Lomita was uncertain, but militarization in the area is well under way.  In the days before the 2018 midterm election, President Trump deployed 5,900 troops to the border. “It’s meant to intimidate people from the other side who might want to come across,” Snipes said. “But it is scaring people here.” Mission is 88 percent Latino, and many families have mixed immigration status. Snipes worried that even if the church remained technically accessible, it can become functionally out of reach.  “Would they start asking people for papers?” he wondered aloud. “Of course, if you got blue eyes, they may not ask you for papers.”

Snipes on the Rio Grande (Jeremy Raff)

A few miles downriver from La Lomita, soldiers strung up rows of concertina wire, razor blades glinting in the sun. It was a compelling picture, and five Army public-affairs units armed with late-model digital cameras churned out news-ready images.  The major TV networks congregated at a vast tent camp that soldiers had erected next to the Donna–Rio Bravo International Bridge. The stated target of the mission— a large group of asylum-seeking migrants trekking through Mexico—was still 2,000 miles away. There wasn’t much for the soldiers to do. In Washington, Pentagon officials “derided the deployment as an expensive waste of time and resources,” The New York Times reported. In Donna, a soldier who grew up in the valley told me the whole thing was “kind of surreal.”

A week later, priests from the border towns of Brownsville and Roma gathered at Snipes’s place for a “bachelor Thanksgiving” replete with Lone Star, canned beans, and instant mashed potatoes. “La Lomita is at the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Father Pablo Wilhelm, from Roma, a trafficking hotspot. “The razor wire is an escalation … it’s like a war’s been declared.” Michael Amesse, of Brownsville, said he was the “odd man out” because he had voted for Trump. “We’re going a little too far in labeling the president in being fearmongering,” he said. “There’s people that are ready to barge the border—do we have a right to just let that happen?” But despite his sympathy for Trump, Amesse’s views did not easily comport with the president’s. Technology was far more effective than walls, he said, and he routinely brought food to desperate asylum seekers camped out in Matamoros, just across the international bridge, not far from his church.

Troops installed razor wire on the banks of the Rio Grande in Hidalgo, Texas. (Jeremy Raff)

Snipes strained for hope. He called the federal encroachment “a fortunate fracaso,” or failure, because both the military presence and the proposed border wall threw the chapel’s own symbolic power into high relief. “The symbols clash,” Snipes said. “The symbol of La Lomita is that we want to be humble and kind, and hospitable.”

In federal court last fall, as the Catholic Church sought to block construction at La Lomita, its lawyers too argued that the wall was a kind of symbolic opposite of the chapel that would block parishioners from worshipping there. “The proposed border wall is fundamentally inconsistent with Catholic values and, if completed, would substantially burden the free exercise of religion,” lawyers for the Church wrote in a December motion. In February, the judge allowed the surveying to go forward days before Congress wrote protections for the chapel into its border wall-funding bill.

“Opposing the wall doesn’t mean we want to have an open border,” Snipes told me, “but it does mean we really want to treat people the way we would like to be treated.” Quietly but routinely, Snipes offers sanctuary to immigrants who approach the church seeking help. The week before bachelor Thanksgiving, a Guatemalan man named Carlos knocked on Snipes’s office door in a fit of desperation. He said he had been kidnapped by the fearsome Gulf Cartel and held for ransom for more than three months. Such kidnappings in this part of the border have become commonplace in recent years as criminal syndicates have mined migrants for profit, a University of Texas study found. Finally, Carlos said, one of his jailers took pity on him and dropped him at the nearest church when the boss wasn’t around. Now he was staying in one of Snipes’s makeshift shelters— a donated RV, a Winter Texan hand-me-down. Carlos’s hands trembled as he told the story. “Now you can rest, and breathe, and give thanks to God,” Snipes said when he was finished. “Later, we’ll figure out the best way forward.”

There is little that authorities could do to persuade Snipes to withhold such help. “There’s a much more profound and powerful law that says I have to do that,” he said.

Less than a week after President Trump declared the national emergency, five lawsuits had already challenged it in court. If those suits can’t stop construction, powerful “border barons” who support Trump but don’t want the wall on their land might.

Andrea Chavez Garza at La Lomita (Jeremy Raff)

In Mission, where emblems of the chapel decorate the town’s welcome sign, the streetlights, and even the trash bins, the prospect of a wall has only sharpened local appreciation for La Lomita. On the day of the welcome-home Mass, Snipes and three dogs streamed out of the Suburban with a small crowd already gathering. “Looking good in the neighborhood,” Snipes said. He greeted 82-year-old Andrea Chavez Garza, who visits the chapel almost every day to pray and sing. “A day I don’t come is not a day for me,” she said. “This church is my refuge.” Snipes introduced her to the Winter Texans, and she approached the microphone to recite a psalm and thank the crowd. “Stay united when I go to heaven,” she advised. “I don’t know why they want to build a wall here,” Chavez shrugged before her face turned serious. “I say over my dead body.”