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

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 Davenport Bishop Thomas R. 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,” he told The Catholic Messenger, newspaper of the Davenport Diocese.

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 Juárez border region to give participants a deeper understanding of the complex migration reality and of the community. “Encuentro” is Spanish for “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 El Paso, a vocal advocate of immigrants and refugees. He recently opened up space at the chancery for Afghan refugees. When Ferris asked 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 Juárez. They learned stunning details of prejudice against Mexicans in the first half of the 20th century.

They met with Bishop José Guadalupe Torres Campos of Ciudad Juárez to hear his assessment of the border situation. Clergy and laypeople who work with migrants spoke with passion and knowledge about the difficult lives of people in transit.

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

Mercy Sister Betty Campbell, 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 Carmelite Father Peter Hinde ministered for decades to the people of Ciudad Juárez, 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 a Mass.

The annual liturgy is a collaborative effort of the dioceses of Las Cruces, New Mexico, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, 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 but in Ciudad Juárez because of a sewage spill in the canal.

The dioceses organized 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 stated.

“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,” it said. “Borders are where we encounter each other and create thriving communities in unity and diversity. Borders are where we share each other’s journeys.”

Torres presided at the Mass, celebrated in Spanish. Seitz, Bishop Peter Baldacchino of Las Cruces, 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,” Zinkula said, speaking in English.

“We’ve met a lot of people doing ministry here, wonderful, wonderful things on both sides of the border,” he said. “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.

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 those gathered 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 Burchett, one of the deacon candidates.

“If that is true, then we can embrace. We should not be scared of one another,” he told The Catholic Messenger. “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.”

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,” he said. “I experienced communion with my brother bishops and the folks they serve on the border.”

Arland-Fye is editor of The Catholic Messenger, newspaper of the Diocese of Davenport.