A thin ribbon of river, the Rio Grande, separates El Paso, Texas, from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua in Mexico, but the geopolitical separation is vast. The City of El Paso International Bridges Department manages three of the region’s international ports of entry — border crossings that connect the two cities — “the world’s largest international border metroplex” (elpasotexas.gov/international-bridges).
Census figures for 2021 estimate the population of Ciudad Juarez at 1.539 million and El Paso at 679,541. Behind the statistics are real people living on the border, many of them struggling to build a better life for their families and themselves. Thwarting their efforts is the intransigence of the U.S. Congress, unwilling to pass immigration law that would help improve the lives of people on both sides of the river.
Five deacon candidates, their formation director and Bishop Thomas Zinkula participated in a border immersion experience in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez Nov. 3-6 to learn more about the situation on the border — to encounter, to listen, to walk with people there. Bishop Zinkula’s insights appear on the front page of this week’s Catholic Messenger. We are also sharing insights from the participating deacon candidates in this space as part of our series “Bridging the Border.”
Ryan Burchett of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Davenport said he knew he had some misconceptions going into the border immersion experience. “Being able to see (the situation) up close helped open my eyes to the human catastrophe that is going on at the border.” He said both sides of the political narrative “hide the unnecessary tragedy that is happening. These are children of God, our brothers and sisters, willing to sacrifice everything because their existence south of the border is so terrible.”
Burchett appreciated an observation from a visit with Bishop (Mark) Seitz of El Paso, who told the group that every diocese is a border diocese in a way. “There are immigrants here in our communities who have risked everything to come here for a better life,” Burchett said. During the Border Mass, Bishop Peter Baldacchino of Las Cruces, New Mexico, “reminded us that we are all fellow children of God. We are all brothers and sisters. If that is true, then we can embrace. We should not be scared of one another.”
“In a way, our visit to the border was sacramental,” Burchett said. “Our physical presence at the border was a living symbol of a spiritual reality that we stand in solidarity with immigrants, refugees, missionaries and our fellow Catholics at the border. It meant a great deal to participate in the body of Christ in this way.”
Andrew Reif of St. Mary Parish-Dodgeville said of traveling to the border, “Sometimes you just have to see it for yourself!” His major takeaway from the border experience: “The charge from everyone we met was to accompany people and listen. The stories and witness of the people we met are stories worth sharing with people in my parish. To meet such great people who are giving so much of their life to aid our brothers and sisters in need is inspiring.”
Kent Ferris of Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish-Muscatine, making his second border immersion trip, hoped the experience would help his fellow deacon formation classmates “know more about the incredible difficulties immigrants face.” He viewed the Mass at the Border as “incredibly important. Bishop Zinkula was willing to travel to join brother bishops responsible for border dioceses to express solidarity. That is significant.” Ferris added, “We come back recommitted to going to the margins in order to express the love of Christ to brothers and sisters in great need.”
Gary Johnson of Divine Mercy Parish, Burlington-West Burlington learned that many people “are experiencing seriously difficult living situations on both sides of the border. Some are bullied by gangs, drug operations, and one woman, in particular, by her own city government. Yet there are also people dedicating their lives to care for, walk with, and to serve those in need when no other help is available. It has been valuable to learn firsthand about the issues related to immigration from the people providing this necessary support. I witnessed how God can bless and multiply the efforts of those who serve others through their God-given abilities and talents. We are all gifted with, and should make use of, our own abilities to care for those with some type of need.”
Andy Hardigan of Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace Parish-Clinton was determined to participate and not anticipate what he was going to experience and to be in the moment to learn about and experience the lives of others. “These, in my mind, are sacred spaces that I am invited into.” His takeaways from the border remind us of our mission as followers of Christ:
• We are all brothers and sisters in Christ with God-given human dignity.
• We are united in solidarity, united in the Eucharist.
• When one of our brothers or sisters suffer, we all suffer.
• The immigrants and people in the border communities are exploited and taken advantage of by many different groups. Even in these experiences, people find reason for joy — the joy of the Gospels, which gives them hope.
• People at the border towns are very welcoming of others outside of the community/culture.
• Very good people are working for justice for immigrants and “humanizing” them by not allowing them to be forgotten, suppressed or just a problem to be dealt with.
• People with privileged status must take responsibility to be a voice in dialogue, humility and action for those who do not have a voice.
• The Catholic Church, not just the institution but also the people, reaches across all political borders to help those who need help.
• Personal encounters with immigrants change us. “Immigrants are no longer a group of people in the abstract, but humans/individuals, just like the people who live next door.”
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor