Building bridges not barriers: Bishop Zinkula and deacon candidates go to the U.S.-Mexico border

Barb Arland-Fye
Priests and bishops process for the Border Mass Nov. 6 in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series on a border immersion experience.)

Thirteen-hundred miles from home, a group from the Diocese of Davenport on a border immersion trip encountered a young woman with two kids and a car with a flat tire in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

The group, which included five deacon candidates, their formation director, diocesan bishop and immersion experience leaders, stopped to change the tire.


The unexpected encounter reinforced the purpose of the Iowans’ journey: to witness life on the border, to learn about the experience of migrants, and to better minister to migrants back home. “It is one thing to hear their stories, but it is quite another to see and be at one of the main crossing points from Mexico to the U.S.,” said Bishop Thomas Zinkula.

“It is important to talk to and learn from people who are ministering to forcibly displaced persons at the border and to the migrants themselves.”

Barb Arland-Fye
Bishop Thomas Zinkula accepts a cross representing a migrant who died in the past year attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Bishop received the cross during the Border Mass Nov. 6 in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. He concelebrated the Mass.

Their journey began Nov. 2 with a 20-hour drive in a van from Davenport to El Paso, Texas, where they took up residence at the Encuentro Project retreat house. The Encuentro Project provides a faith-based, multifaceted immersion program in the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez border region to give participants a deeper understanding of the complex migration reality and of the community. “Encuentro” is a Spanish word that means encounter.

The five deacon candidates — Kent Ferris, Ryan Burchett, Andy Hardigan, Gary Johnson and Andrew Reif — began and ended each day with prayer and theological reflection with their formation director, Deacon Frank Agnoli, and Bishop Zinkula.

They met with Bishop Mark J. Seitz of the El Paso Diocese, a vocal advocate of immigrants and refugees who most recently opened up space at the Chancery for Afghan refugees. When Ferris asked Bishop Seitz about opening up the Chan­cery to refugees, the bishop responded, “Why not?”

The deacon candidates visited a Catholic church in El Paso just blocks from the border bridge that connects El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. They learned stunning details of prejudice against Mexicans in the first half of the 20th century. They met with Bishop J. Guadalupe Torres Campos of the Ciudad Juarez Diocese to hear his assessment of the border situation. Clergy and lay people who work with migrants spoke with passion and knowledge about the difficult lives of people in transit.

Dedicated women religious who founded a school in Ciudad Juarez for children with special needs welcomed the group into their cheerful, colorful classrooms to meet some of the students whom they nurture and mothers whom they affirm. The deacon candidate group dined on burritos and cupcakes with the kids.

Sister Betty Campbell, RSM, a native of Dav­en­port, welcomed the group into her modest home “Casa de Tabor,” founded in 1973 as a Catholic Worker community. She and the late Father Peter Hinde, O.Carm, ministered for decades to the people of Ciudad Juarez, a city plagued by violence. She invited each person in the group to write the names of murder victims on an outdoor memorial wall.

Each encounter of the deacon candidate group’s experience built upon the next and crystallized in the celebration of the border Mass. The annual liturgy is a collaborative effort of the dioceses of Las Cruces, New Mexico; El Paso, Texas; and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, said Marco Raposo, director of Peace and Justice Ministry for the El Paso Diocese. This year it was not held on a platform over the Rio Grande River but in Ciudad Juarez because of a sewage spill in the canal.

The dioceses organize the border Mass to “remind us, missionary disciples of Christ, that we are primarily called to live in communion,” the El Paso Diocese’s Facebook page states. “For our Catholic faith, there is no ‘us and them,’ but one family of God. Borders, in the spirit of the Eucharist, exist not to separate and divide, but to identify and complement one another. Borders are where we encounter each other and create thriving communities in unity and diversity. Borders are where we share each other’s journeys.”

Bishop Torres presided at the Mass, celebrated in Spanish. Bishop Seitz, Bishop Peter Baldacchino, Bishop Zinkula and priests from the collaborating dioceses concelebrated the Mass. After his homily, Bishop Torres invited each bishop to speak.

“We’re here from the middle of the country, the interior of the country to support you all, to support my brother bishops and the wonderful work that they are doing here and to support the people,” Bishop Zinkula said, speaking in English. “We’ve met a lot of people doing ministry here, wonderful wonderful things on both sides of the border. It’s inspiring to me to see people helping other people along the way.” He promised that the group he accompanied would take what they learned “to support you, obviously in prayer and in advocacy with our government and in many other ways.”

Young children carrying white-painted wooden crosses climbed the stairs of the stage and presented them to each of the four bishops after the prayers of intercession. The crosses represented the 557 women, men and children who died attempting to cross the U.S. border with Mexico in fiscal year 2021, which ended Sept. 30. “That’s just the official count of the Border Patrol,” Raposo said.

Barb Arland-Fye
Deacon candidates from the Diocese of Davenport, their formation director and bishop participated in a border immersion experience Nov. 3-6 that culminated with a border Mass on Nov. 6 in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Pictured, from left, are Deacon Frank Agnoli and deacon candidates Andrew Reif, Gary Johnson, Kent Ferris, Andy Hardigan and Ryan Burchett.

An altar of the dead, commemorating the 557 migrants, was displayed on a tier of the stage just below the border Mass altar. The display included a patch of sand littered with remnants of plastic bottles, worn-out sandals and other artifacts. Migrants were among the gathering at Mass.

“In his remarks at the border Mass, Bishop Peter Baldacchino of Las Cruces reminded us that we are all fellow children of God. We are all brothers and sisters,” said deacon candidate Ryan Burchett. “If that is true, then we can embrace. We should not be scared of one another. There is incredible suffering ongoing and we are so fortunate here. We have a chance to make a difference by listening and accompanying each other through these struggles.”

Bishop Zinkula said he felt that solidarity most profoundly during the border Mass. “At its heart, the Eucharist is the principal sacrament of unity and communion. I experienced communion with my brother bishops and the folks they serve on the border.”

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