(SUNLAND PARK, N.M.) — Each year on the last Sunday of October thousands of worshipers take a pilgrimage to Mount Cristo Rey -- a mountain located in Sunland Park, New Mexico, that overlooks El Paso, Texas, the border wall, the United States and Mexico.
At the mountain’s peak is a magnificent 29-foot limestone statue of Jesus Christ -- a monument erected in 1934 that has become a shrine for the faithful. And for decades, thousands of believers have climbed the steep and rugged terrain to ask for a miracle.
Rebecca Escarciga Lehman is one of them.
Lehman was born and raised in California, but her parents are from El Paso. As a child, she spent her summers there and was very close to her family, particularly to her aunt Esperanza Salas Escandon or as she called her “Tia Guera.”
“She provided guidance and support in the years following my own mother's serious illness and continued through my late teens and young adulthood. She had encouraged me to participate in the Mount Cristo Rey pilgrimage ... to strengthen my faith, to pray for God's guidance and blessings for our families,” Lehman said.
But before Lehman made arrangements to go on a pilgrimage to Mount Cristo Rey, her aunt got seriously ill.
“When I visited her in the hospital, she was not clinically awake, but I promised her that I would go to the mountain in her honor,” Lehman said.
“Lord, take care of her, you know what's best. We want her here. But don't let her suffer,” she said, recalling her prayers at the time. “I said I will be going to Mount Cristo Rey as she requested from here on forward.”
Tia Guera died shortly after but for the past twenty years, Lehman has been making the pilgrimage to Cristo Rey each year -- only missing the trip when she was pregnant and in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the annual event.
“I pray the rosary on my way up,” she said, adding that the climb down the mountain is a time to catch up with family members who accompany her.
For Lehman, El Paso has become her spiritual anchor and the pilgrimage is about renewing her faith and being there for family.
Her cousin Ruben Escandon, the son of Tia Guera, has been visiting Cristo Rey since he was a child and his grandparents on both sides of his family helped develop Mount Cristo Rey.
According to Escandon, the monument was inspired by Fr. Lourdes Costa, a local parish priest in El Paso’s Smeltertown, who had a vision of erecting a monument to Christ in 1933 as he looked out his back window. Initially, a wooden cross was erected, but Costa commissioned a friend, sculptor Urbici Soler, to create it.
The statue was completed by 1939 and since then, the monument and the hike trail have been maintained by volunteers – local El Pasoans whose family history is connected to the story of Cristo Rey.
“[When you climb up the mountain] you start thinking about the people that built it, the people that volunteered their hard work and labor back in the thirties and, and the people that have maintained it up until this point,” Escandon said.
Escandon’s grandparents grew up in Smeltertown, a former residential community in El Paso, where hundreds of volunteers carried supplies up the mountain to build the statue’s base and labored for years to build the road that made it possible to place the statue of Christ at the mountain’s peak.
Escandon is a third-generation volunteer and is the spokesman for the Mount Cristo Rey Restoration Committee -- an organization that works to maintain and preserve the statue of Christ, which is often vandalized, as well as the trail that leads to it.
“It's a jewel ... a spiritual beacon that draws people here from pretty much all over the country,” he said.
He regularly leads groups up the mountain, organizes the annual pilgrimage, which has drawn up to 20,000 participants, and welcomes visitors from around the country, including Lehman who makes the trip from California to El Paso to spend time with family and keep her promise to Tia Guera.
And according to Lehman, although you can see the border wall from Mount Cristo Rey, when you look up the landscape blends together and you can no longer see where Mexico begins and where the U.S ends.
“As you're walking, you feel, you see the elevation physically ... it feels like you're lifting yourself up above the earth and the worldly issues and the problems,” Rebecca Escarciga Lehman said.
“All the garbage and stuff and the political things and everything that's going on, and everybody being so different, you're up here and it's gone,” she added. “For me, each rise kind of felt like all that stuff is going further away and I’m realizing what is really at the core of importance, which is faith and family, community, no matter who you are.”
ABC News' James Scholz contributed to this report.
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