SITTING ON A pew in his chapel on the banks of the Rio Grande, Roy Snipes tells a story about his early days spreading the gospel in south Texas. He was a young man then and he was feeling angry, so he went to confession to unburden his soul. An aging preacher listened to his troubles, then offered a word of advice. “Listen,” he said. “You’re a pretty good man. Don’t let ’em make you mean.” The preacher died a few days later. Four decades later, in the early months of 2020, Snipes was doing his best to heed the old man’s advice.
The election of Donald Trump brought repeated threats to the La Lomita Chapel, a small adobe building on the outskirts of Mission, Texas. The chapel is nearly as old as the border itself, and Snipes, known locally as Father Roy, has been serving worshippers there since 1980. For a time, it seemed that the Department of Homeland Security might cut La Lomita off from the rest of the country, fencing it off on the southern side of Trump’s long-promised border wall. The church averted that disaster but then, last winter, a group of out-of-state contractors came to town looking to take the president’s project into their own hands by erecting a crowdfunded barrier on the banks of the river.
The private wall wouldn’t fence the chapel in, but it would seal off land that locals used to enjoy the water, devastate the natural habitat, and place an enormous barrier in the middle of a flood plain. Previous plans to build a wall in the area had been scrapped over fears that doing so would likely get somebody killed. Not only that, the private wall would send an un-neighborly message that Father Roy found deeply upsetting.
All hell broke loose last November, when a video shot by a local journalist captured Snipes’s opposition to the project. “It’s insulting,” Father Roy told veteran border reporter Sandra Sanchez, as he guided his motorboat down the river. “It’s obnoxious and obscene. The river’s sacred. The chapel’s sacred. The people are sacred.” Snipes was accompanied by Marianna Treviño-Wright, director of the National Butterfly Center, a world-famous nature reserve adjacent to the proposed site of the wall. She called the men behind the project “fraudsters” and said the wall would be a “three-and-a-half mile monument to stupidity.”
Two days after the video was posted, the men who Treviño-Wright called out went on the attack. The priest and the butterfly advocate were covering up for “rampant sex trade” on the wildlife refuge, tweeted Brian Kolfage, the head of We Build the Wall, a GoFundMe operation that had crowdfunded tens of millions of dollars for private wall construction along the border, including the project in South Texas, which was spearheaded by Fisher Sand & Gravel, the favored border wall contractor of the Trump administration.
The tweet was one of several baseless allegations Kolfage lobbed at his critics in South Texas, setting off a familiar online cycle of right-wing conspiracy theorizing and threats. A decorated war veteran and noted scam artist, Kolfage had friends in high places. We Build the Wall’s leadership featured Steve Bannon, the former White House adviser, and its consultants included Erik Prince, founder of the mercenary company Blackwater, and Kris Kobach, the former secretary of state of Kansas and one of the country’s most prominent anti-immigration activists. Before turning to the Rio Grande Valley, the group’s efforts in New Mexico received a public stamp of approval from Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of DHS, the nation’s largest and most politicized law enforcement agency
Heading into 2020, the private wall was one effort among many aimed at securing the president’s goal of sealing off the United States from Mexico or, at the very least, laying as many miles of new barrier as possible before voters headed to the polls in November. So in mid-February, I traveled through the Rio Grande Valley with Intercept video producer Paul Abowd and photojournalist Verónica Cárdenas to meet with residents at the forefront of the expansion. We began at La Lomita.