By Barb Arland Fye
My mountaintop experience began with morning prayer at sunrise Nov. 3 on a sand dune in White Sands National Park in New Mexico with five deacon candidates, their formation director and Bishop Thomas Zinkula.
Deacon candidates Kent Ferris and Andy Hardigan convinced their fellow travelers to stop at the park on our way to El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad, Juarez, Mexico, for a border immersion experience. God’s presence was palpable as we climbed the dunes and began to pray on that chilly Wednesday morning. I shivered while praying, but our small faith community created a spiritual warmth that lessened the physical cold. In the stillness of that morning, I sensed God saying, “Be still and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:10.)
We seemed to have the vast park all to ourselves, which felt liberating after a 19-hour van ride from Davenport. We had just 90 minutes left to drive on our journey to El Paso, which heightened my anticipation of the experience ahead of us (along with the possibility of a nap!).
Kent, who also serves as director of Social Action for the Diocese of Davenport, invited me to accompany the diocesan group to write about their border immersion experience and to cover the annual border Mass in person. In addition to Kent and Andy, the deacon candidates on the journey were Ryan Burchett, Gary Johnson and Andrew Reif. Deacon candidates Angel Hernandez and Mike Linnenbrink were unable to make the journey with us.
At the Encuentro Project retreat house in El Paso, we received a warm welcome from Debbie Northern, the house manager and assistant director, and Coralis Salvador, the group shepherd. Both are Maryknoll lay missioners. Encuentro Project’s director is Father Rafael Garcia, SJ, who also serves as pastor of Sacred Heart Church, just five blocks north of the border with Ciudad Juarez. Encuentro Project’s program director is Marist Brother Todd Patenaude, FMS. We became family during our short time together. Our group was the first to have a bishop participate in the Encuentro Project’s border immersion experience, Father Rafael said.
Each day, we listened to speakers passionate about their work with people living on both sides of the border. The deacon candidates unpacked what they had learned and experienced on their “encuentro,” a Spanish word that means encounter. I felt privileged to listen to their theological reflections, which inspired mine.
“When Jesus says something as fundamental as love your neighbor as yourself, he didn’t say that ‘neighbor’ has to be limited,” Bishop Mark J. Seitz of the Diocese of El Paso said. All people are neighbors. He recently traveled to Honduras to learn more about the conditions that compel people to migrate. “In El Paso, we’re just trying to live the Gospel as you are,” he told us.
Among the memorable experiences, for me, was an invitation to write the names of people who lost their lives because of violence along the border. Mercy Sister Betty Campbell, a native of Davenport, conducted that exercise. We gathered in a circle and prayed for the persons whose names we printed on an outdoor memorial at her small house in Ciudad Juarez.
Now home, I pulled out two slips of paper with the names that I printed on the memorial wall. Rosa Huerta was a 19-year-old migrant who died Sept. 28, 2010, and Alejandra Grable, 21, was a worker who died May 23, 2021.These two young women who were unknown to me now have a place in my heart.
I continue to unpack the mountaintop experiences of my immersion at the border.
(Contact Editor Barb Arland-Fye at firstname.lastname@example.org)