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Prayer and worship lift unaccompanied migrant teens into shelters

DEVELOPMENT… The story will be updated as new information can be verified. Updated 3 times

EL PASO, Texas — Every Sunday afternoon except three 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 objects in a plastic storage box.

Then he drags him a few miles to Fort Bliss, a military base in the desert on the outskirts of El Paso, where he helps celebrate mass for hundreds of migrant teenagers held in a sprawling tent shelter.

This shelter and similar facilities in the Southwest were set up by the Biden administration and its predecessors to deal with the influx of minors crossing the US-Mexico border without parents or guardians. For the young congregants they hold, visiting clergy and volunteers provide comfort and healing through the sacraments.

“They pray with such devotion that you can see the tears welling up in their eyes,” Guerra says of the teenage acts of faith he witnesses each Sunday after taking communion and kneeling 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 praying fervently at Fort Bliss during the unprecedented arrivals of unaccompanied children last year was 15-year-old Elena. She asked not to be identified again due to the dangerous circumstances she fled in Guatemala.

Elena told the AP that for weeks she had been asking God to let her out of the shelter as soon as possible. Then, when other girls also being held became “inconsolable,” she prayed that they would be released first. As the days passed, she began to fear that God was “bored” by her requests and prayed for forgiveness.

What sustained her for two months before her release was receiving the sacraments, including communion distributed at a mass celebrated by the Catholic Bishop of El Paso, Mark Seitz.

“When he arrived, you could feel like a peace, something that comforted you, something that you needed,” Elena recalled during that Holy Week, which she observes with relatives away from El Paso. “God was with us to endure so many days without family.”

At 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 something gets stronger on their journey,” Seitz said of the hundreds of teenagers he’s cared for since last Easter at Fort Bliss.

Most Sundays, Reverend Rafael García, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish located four blocks from the border in downtown El Paso, celebrates Mass there, as he has done in different shelters for the past five years.

“All of us who leave find ourselves transformed,” says the Jesuit priest. “Not everyone comes (to Mass), but those who come are people of very strong faith.”

Suddenly and often tragically detached from their country and the families that raised them, “their only strength is prayer,” said Reverend Jose de la Cruz Longoria, pastor of five Catholic parishes around Pecos, Texas, who takes care of the teenagers of the shelter. the. “That is why it is a question of showing them at Mass that he is a God who loves and who forgives.”

In whispered prayers in Spanish and indigenous languages ​​at makeshift altars, the children in the shelters – most of them aged 12 to 17 from Central America – ask God for help on their lonely and uncertain journey. and for the loved ones they left behind.

“They pray for friends lost along the way and for family members to accept and love them,” says Dominga Villegas, who helped organize Palm Sunday mass, with palm fronds, for more than 200 teenagers from the Pecos shelter.

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

Some have no family, but many join a relative or are sent to live with other family members in the United States to escape poverty and violence.

When unaccompanied minors are apprehended or surrender to US authorities after crossing the border without permission, they are housed in facilities operated by the Department of Health and Human Services until the government screens a member of the family or sponsor to ensure they can be released safely.

Under the last three U.S. administrations, particularly when the number of minors crossing the border suddenly increases and emergency reception centers like the one at Fort Bliss are hastily organized, controversies have erupted over the conditions and duration young people’s stay in these establishments, where media access is strictly restricted.

While awaiting release, many teenagers struggle with regret and low self-esteem, religious leaders told the AP. They are battered not only by the trauma they fled, but by the guilt they feel for having fled, sometimes without saying goodbye to beloved parents who raised them – and for ending up in a place very different from their dreams, without a clear path. ahead.

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

At the end of the ten-hour day, she saw them sit up straighter as she encouraged them to trust “the identity that comes with being children of God, regardless of our race, of our situation”.

It’s the same message that priests convey through Mass and confession, even to young people who aren’t Catholic but approach them anyway because “they just want to talk,” said Reverend Brian Strassburger, a Jesuit who takes care of sheltering young people in Brownsville and celebrates Mass across the border in a migrant camp in Reynosa, Mexico.

“We try to comfort them, to assure them that God is with them. May their parents always love them,” he said.

Many teenagers who were active in their home churches volunteer to read the scriptures or sing psalms. Sacred music helps put others at ease, said Roland Guerrero, who brought his guitar, microphones and sheet music to Fort Bliss nearly every Sunday for a year.

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

“I know what I’m doing is a band-aid,” Guerrero said of a musical worship service on a Lenten Sunday as he prepared to head to the shelter. “It doesn’t denigrate him, because in faith there’s no way of knowing what’s going on inside a particular child.”

He compares it to planting seeds of hope – just like in “Montaña”, a favorite song for children in Catholic and Protestant shelters. It is based on the Gospel verse that faith even as tiny as a mustard seed is enough to move mountains.

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

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Associated Press religious 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.