Q&A: The Rev. David Chavez brings lifelong experience in border region to work as Arizona missioner

By David Paulsen
Posted May 14, 2021

The Rev. David Chavez is the Diocese of Arizona’s border missioner. Photo: Courtesy of David Chavez

[Episcopal News Service] The Rev. David Chavez has spent nearly all his life breathing in the culture, customs and geography of the United States’ southern border, from his childhood in the 1980s growing up between border communities in Arizona and California to his current role as the Diocese of Arizona’s missioner for border ministries.

Chavez’s Christian faith is rooted in the nondenominational churches he attended as a child with his family as part of the bilingual faith community that straddled the border between San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico. After earning master’s degrees in divinity and theology from Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, he spent about a decade as a Presbyterian minister before friends drew him to The Episcopal Church.

In an interview with Episcopal News Service, Chavez described finding a new spiritual home at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Phoenix, Arizona, about five years ago. He explained that Dean Troy Mendez and the rest of the congregation welcomed him and his two sons, and Chavez soon began the Episcopal ordination process, becoming a priest in 2018.

Chavez served as priest-in-charge at Iglesia Episcopal Santa Maria in Phoenix and curate of Hispanic ministries at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral before becoming the diocese’s border missioner. As part of that role, he now represents Bishop Jennifer Reddall with Cruzando Fronteras, a cross-border ecumenical partnership that supports migrants and asylum-seekers, including at a shelter in Nogales, Mexico. Chavez also connects congregations with ministries serving migrants who are awaiting asylum hearings and who are being held in federal detention facilities, and he leads Arizona Episcopalians in policy and theological study around border issues and coordinates trips to the border.

“I always tell people, one of the joys of doing this ministry is coming and being a part of a diocese that has a long history of engagement around border issues and concerns, immigration and migrants, asylum-seekers and folks seeking sanctuary,” Chavez said. “It’s a pretty established part of the diocese, with particular congregations sort of taking the lead.” Arizona also is part of a network of Episcopal dioceses along the southern border.

From left, Diocese of Arizona Border Missioner the Rev. David Chavez, Western Mexico Bishop Ricardo Gómez Osnaya and El Salvador Bishop Juan David Alvarado walk along the border wall in Nogales, Arizona, as part of a November 2019 Episcopal Border Ministries Summit. Photo: Lynette Wilson/Episcopal News Service

The following questions and answers have been condensed and lightly edited for length and clarity.

ENS: Tell me about your family background.

CHAVEZ: On my mother’s side, I am Honduran. My mom is from Honduras. And on my dad’s side, his family is Mexican, from Chihuahua. I was born in Arizona, in Douglas, which is a border town, and was raised both in Douglas and in National City, California [a South Bay suburb of San Diego].

ENS: I have to assume your family has an immigration story. How far back did your family come to the United States?

CHAVEZ: My [Mexican] grandfather came to work for the copper mining industry in Arizona, and in Douglas specifically. It was the Phelps Dodge Mining Company. My grandfather and his brother came to the States to work directly for them, and that’s what they did their entire lives. My dad was born in Mexico, and he and his brothers pretty much saw themselves as Mexicans who were living in the United States. My dad served in the [U.S.] Army, so they lived in both worlds.

ENS: Did your father become a U.S. citizen?

CHAVEZ: Yes, he did. My mother’s family we don’t know much about. She was an orphan and grew up in Honduras under the care of a religious order in the capital city [Tegucigalpa]. She came to the United States as a young woman, sponsored by a family in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was about 17. The family she was living with moved to Los Angeles, and that’s where she met my dad.

ENS: Growing up so close to the border, what were your personal experiences with it as a child?

CHAVEZ: The Douglas-Agua Prieta border, it’s clear in my mind because that’s where my grandma would go and buy groceries, see her dentist, see her doctor. I remember it as a child, spending time on the streets, in doctor’s offices, at supermarkets, stores [in Agua Prieta, Mexico]. Growing up in San Diego, of course, there was the Tijuana-San Diego border. I grew up in the Latino community, so it was a part of the conversation, both at home [and] among friends. A lot of my friends in elementary and middle school were from Tijuana, or lived in Tijuana and traveled to different middle schools in the South Bay. And as I grew older and maintained some of these friendships, I would go to Tijuana on weekends to visit, to dine with friends, to go out with friends. And also, the church that I attended as an adolescent and as a youth had strong connections with some of the churches there in the colonias [neighborhoods] in Tijuana. And so, on occasion, we would go join some of the churches in Tijuana in worship or in work projects, for retreats. A big part of my formation took root there on the Tijuana-San Diego border. The border’s just not a site, as Miguel De La Torre says – it’s a social location. And it comes with that sense of how, politically, others view people from Mexico or Central America. I grew up with a keen sense of awareness around the color of my skin and also the narrative around the color of my skin. You are viewed as part of this broader community, and you experience the prejudices and the political and social discourse that labels you “other.” As a child, I remember translating for my mother, at school, at the supermarket, and I remember experiencing that sense of prejudice against us because of the language barrier. So yeah, the border has always been part of my life, as a place to go and be and to cross, but it’s also been a reality that I embody. It’s also part of what it means to be brown and Latino in America.

ENS: You’re describing quite a bit of cross-border interaction and activity. Looking at the border today, how much of that is still possible, or has most of that activity disappeared because of border policies?

CHAVEZ: I think a lot has changed: the ability to have that to-and-fro, as far as engagement, personal engagement, involvement, face-to-face interaction – on the practical end, the longer lines to wait [at border crossings] and the level of inspection and surveillance. You go from waiting 45 minutes to four or five hours. A lot of it was rooted in policy changes. It was a sense that the border became dangerous and required the level of surveillance that nowadays we know as the militarization of the border. Some of it was just the escalation of enforcement procedures at the border and also the escalation of violence at certain parts of the border. Some people say it goes all the way back to the Reagan administration with the war on drugs and the creation of an unstable region at the border. There was like this coordinated effort to increase the sense of danger and to show the punitive dimension. And to see that and, as a young person, to know that the color of my skin could actually cause [law enforcement officials] to stop me and ask me, “Where are you from?” I remember having a heightened sense of anxiety, and to be frank with you, it’s still an anxiety for me. There is this continued sense in which people like me are targeted.

ENS: Are border issues different in Arizona compared to other places in the Southwest?

CHAVEZ: There’s a sense of continuity across the border because [border dioceses] are working with policies that are at play across West Texas, the Rio Grande Valley, Arizona and San Diego. There’s an intensity to the push factors that are fueling a lot of the migration: the impact [in Central America] of hurricanes, natural disasters, the level of corruption, of violence. It’s the [migrants’] continued pursuit for an opportunity just to live with a sense of dignity and hope for a future. That’s what I see. And the level of rhetoric and the nativist and nationalist impulses that have shaped the narrative around immigrants and migration – it’s dumbfounding. And I think what we’ve experienced in the last four years, the level of vitriol and rhetoric around immigrants is just exceptional.

ENS: The Episcopal Church has advocated for comprehensive immigration reform, and it also has emphasized the humanity and dignity of those seeking work or asylum. How much of the work of a border missioner is political, advocating for change, and how much is pastoral, reaching out and helping individuals?

CHAVEZ: I think that the work that we’re doing on the border is both that prophetic and pastoral work of making good on the social policies [approved by General Convention] that define or demonstrate who we are as The Episcopal Church when it comes to demanding that the dignity of every human being is respected. [Episcopalians are] very clear that the work that we do is rooted in our baptismal identity, and so the work of coming alongside our migrating neighbors is an expression of that commitment. It’s a fleshing out and embodiment of that particular claim. That’s what informs the work that we’re doing here.

ENS: Is there an Arizona congregation that you think has embraced this work in a particularly profound way?

CHAVEZ: Grace St. Paul’s in Tucson, Arizona. They’ve been particularly engaged in migrant justice and addressing what’s taking place at the detention centers here in Arizona. The conditions show a complete disregard for the dignity of detainees, before the pandemic and after the pandemic, like overcrowding and the lack of care and compassion. Grace St. Paul’s and others in their network engage in border issues and concerns. They’ve been actively engaged for over 20 years in calling for migrant justice and for the humane treatment of folks coming to the Arizona-Mexico border.

ENS: What are your thoughts on the more recent crisis? Under the Biden administration, there have been policy changes that have been welcomed by immigrant advocates. At the same time, migrants seeking asylum have overwhelmed the federal system for processing them, including thousands of unaccompanied minors. Is it a crisis?

CHAVEZ: We continue to hold the administration accountable, and we continue to call on federal and local leaders to do the right thing. There is specifically Title 42, which is a Trump-era policy that allows for expelling folks without due process. Do away with that order. I see the work that the [Biden] administration is attempting as key to moving forward, but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. It is a humanitarian crisis, and it’s a crisis of compassion. The word “crisis” has become so politicized, but what we’re facing is a profound challenge to a system that was really dismantled by the previous administration, and also a challenge to this new administration to meet the moment. And the administration can’t meet this moment without partnering with organizations and ministries that are responding with compassion.

ENS: We talk about the border as some sort of concrete thing. At the most basic level, it’s really a line on a map that two nations agree will divide them. When you think of the border or border region, how do you understand it today?

CHAVEZ: There’s the saying that the border divides us, but the land unites us. In Spanish, it’s “la frontera nos divide, pero la tierra nos une.” There is that sense in which the border is this very concrete space of division. It’s a geographical location. It’s an artificial marker. But underneath is la tierra, this land that unites us. I view that space as sacred, as my way of saying, this is what happens when a way of love meets the way of the empire. And as a community of faith, we need to insist that the way of love is what will shape our perspective, will shape our work.

ENS: Is there an immigrant or migrant you have met as border missioner whose personal story has particularly resonated with you?

CHAVEZ: Yeah, there is a mother and daughter from Honduras at the shelter in Nogales that I met on one of my recent visits. She’s moving to the next stage in her immigration proceedings. Just sitting across from someone who left a pretty violent situation in her home country, and to see hope and to see the sense of taking the next step for their future, for her and her daughter, and just to hear the sense of excitement but also the sort of gratitude for the community of La Casa, the shelter we support, for providing a place for both restoration and hope, that was powerful. To look into her eyes, you recognize those moments are sacred. And I’m excited that she and her daughter will be taking the next step in her asylum process. For me, I see my heritage in the faces of people coming from Central America. I see family.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.