Diveristy in Friendship
by Antone R.E. Pierucci
The Borderland Lodge
How a group in down-and-out El Centro made itself an indispensable part of the community—in two countries.
By Antone Pierucci
The community of El Centro exists on the border. The border between Mexico and the United States, yes—but also the border between employed and unemployed, between poverty and, if not wealth, then at least survival. “It’s always been this way, for as long as I’ve been here,” says Ira Hearen Jr., current marshal for Imperial Valley Lodge No. 390.
Kelly Ranasinghe, the past master of the lodge and now senior warden, considers that scrappiness a strength. “Most of us work as teachers, as social workers, or for the government,” Ranasinghe says. “We’re really a reflection of the community.”
That makes the members of Imperial Valley No. 390 particularly well disposed to help. For the city of El Centro, though, it’s tough to pinpoint where exactly the greatest need is. The city boasts the dubious distinction of having one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, at 18 percent prior to the coronavirus outbreak. (Nationally, unemployment stood at 4 percent.) Consequently, it’s one of the state’s poorest cities, with 28 percent of children living in poverty. It’s also one of the unhealthiest, with among the highest rates of air pollution in California and, nationwide, some of the worst access to primary care. It’s against this backdrop that the members of the lodge gamely stepped forward to help fill the gaps—and, in so doing, distinguished themselves as one of the most civically engaged lodges. “We don’t get a lot of outside help here,” Ranasinghe says. “So we have to help each other.”
That was put on display this spring, when the lodge authorized an emergency $5,000 donation to the county’s Area Agency on Aging to supplement relief services for the elderly in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Even in more normal circumstances, the lodge is known for its charity, including an annual $10,000 scholarship program for graduating seniors (one of the largest scholarship opportunities in the county). The lodge also supports the local elementary school’s dual-language immersion program and organizes volunteering efforts at a local domestic violence care center, among other initiatives.
One good turn deserves another, and when the lodge itself needs a hand, members look to their neighbors for help. In the past, that included five nearby lodges; over the years, however, all have consolidated into Imperial Valley No. 390. Today, the closest Masonic lodge is across the border in Mexicali. “The guys at Palingensia Lodge No. 46 are amazing,” Ranasinghe says. “Whenever we need them, they come over to support us in degrees and sit in as sideliners.” And being good neighbors themselves, members of Imperial Valley repay the favor whenever possible.
While at times the challenges facing a town like El Centro can feel insurmountable, they provide the lodge with a motivating purpose—one that has brought its members closer together. And, of course, there are other perks to consider. As Hearen says, “The guys at Palingensia make some darn good barbecue.”