EL PASO, TEXAS – On all but three Sunday afternoons since Easter last year, Bob Guerra – a Catholic deacon – has carefully packed his favorite cross, a Bible in his native language. In Spain, hundreds of Communion cakes are preserved in Ziploc bags and other liturgical items. into a plastic storage box.
He then towed it a few miles to Fort Bliss, an Army base in the desert on the outskirts of El Paso, where he helped celebrate Mass for hundreds of immigrant teenagers held in a large tent. .
That shelter and similar facilities across the Southwest were set up by the Biden administration and its predecessors in response to minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without a parent or guardian. household. To the faithful young people they hold, visiting missionaries and volunteers bring comfort and healing through the sacraments.
“They’re praying with such devotion you can see the tears rolling down their eyes,” Guerra said of the teen’s acts of faith he witnesses every Sunday after they Communion and knelt before a small cross. On Easter Sunday, he plans to give them their own miniature crosses and cookies baked by local nuns.
Among the teenagers who fervently prayed at Fort Bliss during last year’s unprecedented unaccompanied child pick-up was Elena, then 15 years old.
Elena told the AP that for weeks she prayed to God to get her out of the shelter as soon as possible. Later, when the other girls also in custody became “unsolvable”, she prayed that they would be released first. As the days passed, she began to worry that God might “bored” her pleas, and begged for forgiveness.
What sustained her for the two months before her release was receiving the sacraments, including receiving Holy Communion at Mass celebrated by El Paso’s Catholic bishop, Mark Seitz.
“When he comes, you can feel like a peace, something to comfort you, something that you need,” recalls Elena this Holy Week, which she is observing with loved ones far away from El Paso. “God was with us to endure many days without family.”
In her home, she was so grateful for the Mass she attended with her mother in Guatemala, that she braided a friendship bracelet for Seitz, who wore several on his right wrist.
“They have the belief that if anything is going to get stronger in their journey,” said Seitz of the hundreds of young people he has served since Easter last year at Fort Bliss. .
On most Sundays, Father Rafael Garcia, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish located four blocks from the border in downtown El Paso, celebrates Mass there, just as he has in shelters different for five years.
The Jesuit priest said: “When we all go, we find ourselves transformed. “Not all of them come (to attend Mass), but those who come are people of very strong faith.”
Father Jose de la Cruz Longoria, pastor at five Catholic parishes around Pecos, Texas, said “their only strength is prayer.” there. “That’s why it’s so important to show them at Mass that he is a loving and forgiving God.”
In Spanish and vernacular murmured prayers at the tabernacle altars, the children in the shelters – most between the ages of 12 and 17 from Central America – ask God to help with their journey. lonely, uncertain and for the loved ones they have left behind.
Dominga Villegas, who helped organize Palm Sunday Mass, completed with palm leaves for more than 200 youth at the Pecos shelter, said: “They prayed for their friends who got lost on the road, and Their family members can accept and love them.
In increasing numbers since 2014, hundreds of thousands of children under the age of 18 have come alone in search of safety and a better life in the United States. Since October, Border Patrol has caught an average of more than 11,000 unaccompanied minors each month, according to US Customs and Border Protection figures.
Some have no families, but many rejoin their parents or are sent to other family members in the United States to escape poverty and violence.
When unaccompanied minors are apprehended or turned themselves in to U.S. officials after crossing the border without permission, they are temporarily housed in facilities administered by the Department of Health and Human Services. until the government checks a family member or donor to make sure they can be released safely.
Under three previous US administrations, especially when the number of minors crossing the border spiked and emergency shelters such as Fort Bliss were hastily arranged, controversies erupted. about the conditions and length of stay of young people in these facilities, where media access is strictly limited.
Faith leaders told the AP that while awaiting release, many teenagers struggle with remorse and low self-esteem. They are battered not only by the trauma they had to run from, but also by the guilt of running away, sometimes without saying goodbye to the loved ones who raised them – and for having ended up. ended up in a place far from their dreams, indistinct. the way forward.
Lissa Jimenez, a psychologist, a psychologist, who organized a day-long spiritual session, said: “They don’t have a sense of pleasure when they get to the end of the tunnel. They can’t allow it. I personally feel that this is a victory and a blessing from God.” retreat at the Pecos facility in March.
At the end of the ten o’clock day, she found them sitting more upright as she encouraged them to believe in their “identity as children of God given to us, regardless of our race, our circumstances.”
It’s the same message that priests bring through Mass and confession, even to young non-Catholics who should reach them anyway because “they just want to talk,” Linh said. Brian Strassburger, a Jesuit, curator of youth shelters in Brownsville and commemoration. Cross-border Mass at a migrant camp in Reynosa, Mexico.
“We try to give them comfort, assure them that God is with them. Their parents still love them,” he said.
Many teenagers who are active in their church in their hometown volunteer to read the Bible or read a psalm. “Sacred music puts others at ease,” said Roland Guerrero, who brought his guitar, mic and sheet music to Fort Bliss. Fort Bliss on all but Sunday in a year.
His efforts for social justice and migrant rights extend far beyond this office. Bishop Seitz, Jesuit priests and many other faith leaders also provide shelter, food and advocacy to both sides of the border.
“I know what I’m doing as a Band-Aid,” Guerrero of cult music said one Sunday during Lent as he prepared to drive to the shelter. “That doesn’t negate it, because in faith there is no way to know what is going on inside a child.”
He compares it to planting seeds of hope — like in “Montana,” a favorite song of Catholic and Protestant shelter children. Based on the Gospel verse that faith even as small as a mustard seed is enough to move mountains.
“Esa montana se movera (this mountain will move),” Guerrero sings, strumming his classical Gibson acoustic guitar. “I let them sway. Then they started jumping again.”
The Associated Press’s religious coverage is supported through the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.