Prayer, worship lift unaccompanied migrant teens in shelters

Apr 16, 2022, 6:00 AM | Updated: Apr 18, 2022, 5:55 am

This photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families shows an altar in one of the children’s dormitories at the shelter on the Army’s base at Fort Bliss, outside El Paso, Texas, in April 2022. (Courtesy of HHS via AP)

(Courtesy of HHS via AP)

EL PASO, Texas (AP) — On all but three Sunday afternoons since last Easter, Bob Guerra — a Catholic deacon — has carefully packed his favorite crucifix, a Spanish-language Bible, hundreds of Communion wafers secured in Ziploc bags and other liturgical items into a plastic storage box.

Then he lugs it a few miles to Fort Bliss, an Army base in the desert on the outskirts of El Paso, where he helps celebrate Mass for hundreds of migrant teens held at a vast tent shelter.

That shelter and similar facilities across the southwest were set up by the Biden administration and its predecessors to deal with surges of minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without parents or guardians. For the faithful young people they hold, the clergy and volunteers who visit bring comfort and healing through the sacraments.

“They’re praying with such devotion you can see the tears rolling down their eyes,” Guerra says of the teens’ acts of faith he witnesses every Sunday after they receive Communion and kneel before a little cross. On Easter Sunday, he plans to gift them their own miniature crosses and cookies baked by local nuns.

Among the teens praying fervently at Fort Bliss during last year’s unprecedented arrivals of unaccompanied children was Elena, then 15. She asked that she not be identified further because of the dangerous circumstances she fled in Guatemala.

Elena told The AP that for weeks she asked God to let her out of the shelter as soon as possible. Then, when other girls also being held grew “inconsolable,” she prayed they’d be released first. As the days went by, she started worrying God might be “bored” by her petitions, and prayed for forgiveness.

What sustained her for two months before her release was receiving the sacraments, including Communion distributed during a Mass celebrated by the Catholic bishop of El Paso, Mark Seitz.

“When he arrived, you could feel like a peace, something that comforts you, something that you need,” Elena recalled during this Holy Week, which she’s observing with relatives far from El Paso. “God was with us to endure so many days without family.”

In the shelter, she was so grateful for Mass, which she used to attend with her mother in Guatemala, that she braided a friendship bracelet for Seitz, who wears several on his right wrist.

“They have this faith that if anything became stronger on their journey,” said Seitz of the hundreds of teens he has ministered to since last Easter at Fort Bliss.

On most Sundays, the Rev. Rafael García, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish located four blocks from the border in downtown El Paso, celebrates Mass there, as he has at different shelters for five years.

“All of us that go, we find we are transformed ourselves,” says the Jesuit priest. “Not all come (to Mass), but those who do are people of very strong faith.”

Suddenly and often tragically detached from their countries and the families who raised them, “their only strength is prayer,” said the Rev. Jose de la Cruz Longoria, pastor at five Catholic parishes around Pecos, Texas, who ministers to teens at the shelter there. “That’s why the point is to show them at Mass that he’s a God who loves and forgives.”

In murmured prayers in Spanish and Indigenous languages at makeshift altars, kids in shelters — most of them 12- to 17-year-olds from Central America — ask God’s help for their lonely, uncertain journey and for loved ones they left behind.

“They pray for their friends lost on the way, and that their family members might accept and love them,” says Dominga Villegas, who helped organize Palm Sunday Mass, complete with palm fronds, for more than 200 teens at the Pecos shelter.

In growing numbers since 2014, hundreds of thousands of under-18 children have come alone to seek safety and a better life in the United States. Since October, the Border Patrol has encountered an average of more than 11,000 unaccompanied minors a month, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.

Some have no family, but many are rejoining a parent or are sent to other family members in the United States to escape poverty and violence.

When unaccompanied minors are apprehended or turn themselves in to U.S. officials after crossing the border without authorization, they are sheltered in facilities managed by the Department of Health and Human Services until the government vets a family member or sponsor to ensure they can be safely released.

Under the past three U.S. administrations, especially when the number of minors crossing the border surges suddenly and emergency intake shelters like that at Fort Bliss are hastily arranged, controversies have erupted over the conditions and duration of the youths’ stay at these facilities, where media access is tightly restricted.

While awaiting their release, many teens struggle with regrets and low self-esteem, faith leaders told The AP. They’re battered not only by the trauma they fled, but by the guilt they feel for fleeing, sometimes without saying goodbye to beloved relatives who raised them — and for having ended up in a place far different from their dreams, with no clear path ahead.

“They don’t have any taste yet for the end of the tunnel. They can’t allow themselves to feel that already this is a victory and a blessing from God,” says Lissa Jiménez, a psychologist who held a day-long spiritual retreat at the Pecos facility in March.

By the end of the ten-hour day, she saw them sit up straighter as she encouraged them to trust in “the identity that being children of God gives us, independently of race, of our situation.”

It’s the same message that priests bring through Mass and confession, even for youths who are not Catholic but approach them anyway because “they just want to talk,” said the Rev. Brian Strassburger, a Jesuit who ministers to shelter youths in Brownsville and celebrates Mass across the border at a migrant camp in Reynosa, Mexico.

“We try to give them comfort, assure them that God is with them. That their parents still love them,” he said.

Many of the teens who were active in their churches back home volunteer to read Scripture or chant psalms. Sacred music helps put others at ease, said Roland Guerrero, who has brought his guitar, mics and music sheets to Fort Bliss on all but a couple of Sundays for a year.

His efforts for social justice and migrant rights extend far beyond this ministry. Bishop Seitz, the Jesuit priests and many other faith leaders also provide shelter, food and advocacy on both sides of the border.

“I know what I’m doing is a Band-Aid,” said Guerrero of musical worship on a Sunday during Lent as he prepared to drive to the shelter. “That doesn’t denigrate it, because in faith there’s no way to know what’s going on inside an individual child.”

He compares it to planting seeds of hope — just as in “Montaña,” a favorite song of Catholic and Protestant shelter children. It’s based on the Gospel verse that faith even as minuscule as a mustard seed is enough to move mountains.

“Esa montaña se moverá (this mountain will move),” Guerrero sings, strumming his vintage acoustic Gibson guitar. “I have them sway. Then they start dancing again.”

——

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

FILE - A house sits in Rock Creek after floodwaters washed away a road and a bridge in Red Lodge, M...
Associated Press

Yellowstone flooding reveals forecast flaws as climate warms

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The Yellowstone National Park area’s weather forecast the morning of June 12 seemed fairly tame: warmer temperatures and rain showers would accelerate mountain snow melt and could produce “minor flooding.” A National Weather Service bulletin recommended moving livestock from low-lying areas but made no mention of danger to people. By nightfall, […]
21 hours ago
Associated Press

Today in History: July 7, female cadets at West Point

Today in History Today is Thursday, July 7, the 188th day of 2022. There are 177 days left in the year. Today’s Highlight in History: On July 7, 1976, the United States Military Academy at West Point included female cadets for the first time as 119 women joined the Class of 1980. On this date: […]
21 hours ago
A police officer prepares an ATV for patrol ahead of the G20 Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Nusa Dua...
Associated Press

Russia’s war in Ukraine to overshadow G20 talks in Bali

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Foreign ministers from the Group of 20 leading rich and developing nations are gathering in Indonesia’s resort island of Bali for talks bound to be dominated by the conflict in Ukraine despite an agenda focused on global cooperation and food and energy security. The one-day gathering will take place on Friday […]
21 hours ago
This undated photo released by the San Francisco Zoo & Gardens, shows, a male Magellanic penguin, c...
Associated Press

Oldest Magellanic penguin at San Francisco Zoo dies at 40

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The oldest Magellanic penguin at the San Francisco Zoo & Gardens — one of the oldest penguins living under human care anywhere in the world — died Wednesday at the age of 40, the zoo reported. The estimated age of the male, called Captain Eo, was well over the species’ average […]
21 hours ago
Cherelle Griner, Brittney Griner's wife, talks prior to a rally for Phoenix Mercury WNBA basketball...
Associated Press

Mercury hold public rally in support of Brittney Griner

PHOENIX (AP) — They shared laughs, smiles, memories. There also were tears, fears, unease. Through the range of emotions, one common thread bonded them together: Brittney Griner. Wearing “BG” shirts and holding signs, several hundred fans gathered for a public rally in support of Griner on Wednesday, hoping their sentiments would reach the WNBA player […]
21 hours ago
FILE - Former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin addresses the court as Hennepin County Judge...
Associated Press

Ex-cop Chauvin to get federal sentence for Floyd’s killing

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Derek Chauvin will learn his sentence Thursday for violating George Floyd’s civil rights, with a deal in place that would extend the former Minneapolis police officer’s time behind bars while shifting him to possibly more favorable conditions in a federal prison. Chauvin agreed to a sentence of 20 to 25 years in […]
21 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

(Courtesy Condor)...
Condor Airlines

Condor Airlines shows passion for destinations from Sky Harbor with new-look aircraft

Condor Airlines brings passion to each flight and connects people to their dream destinations throughout the world.
...
CANVAS ANNUITY

Best retirement savings rates hit 4.30%

Maximize your retirement savings with guaranteed fixed rates up to 4.30%. Did you know there is a financial product that can give you great interest rates as you build your retirement savings and provide you with a paycheck for life once you retire? It might sound too good to be true but it is not; this product is called an annuity.
...
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

Update your child’s vaccines before kindergarten

So, your little one starts kindergarten soon. How exciting! You still have a few months before the school year starts, so now’s the time to make sure students-to-be have the vaccines needed to stay safe as they head into a new chapter of life.
Prayer, worship lift unaccompanied migrant teens in shelters