Prayer, worship lift unaccompanied migrant teens into shelters | lifestyles

By GIOVANNA DELL’ORTO – Associated Press

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 in Ziploc bags, and other liturgical items into a plastic storage box .

He then tows 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 being held in a massive tent camp.

This shelter and similar facilities in the Southwest were set up by the Biden administration and its predecessors to handle the influx of minors crossing the US-Mexico border without parents or legal guardians. For the faithful young people who host them, the clergy and volunteers who visit them bring comfort and healing through the sacraments.

“They pray with such devotion that you can see the tears rolling down their eyes,” Guerra says of the acts of faith of the teenagers he witnesses every Sunday after they have received Communion and knelt before a small cross. On Easter Sunday he plans to give them their own miniature crosses and biscuits baked by local nuns.

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

Elena told The AP that she’s been asking God for weeks to let her out of the shelter as soon as possible. Then, when other girls who were also being held became “heartbroken,” she prayed they would be released first. As the days went by, she began to worry that God might be “boring” with her requests and prayed for forgiveness.

What she supported for two months before her release was receiving the sacraments, including communion, which was distributed during a Mass celebrated by El Paso’s Catholic Bishop, Mark Seitz.

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

At the shelter, she was so grateful for the mass she attended with her mother in Guatemala that she braided a friendship bracelet to Seitz, who wears several on his right wrist.

“They have this belief that if anything, they’ve gotten even stronger on their journey,” Seitz said of the hundreds of teenagers he’s ministered to at Fort Bliss since Easter.

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

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

Suddenly and often tragically separated from their lands and the families who raised them, “their only strength is prayer,” said Rev. Jose de la Cruz Longoria, pastor at five Catholic communities in the Pecos, Texas area , who takes care of young people in the home there. “So it’s about showing them in Mass that He’s a God who loves and forgives.”

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

“They pray for their friends who are lost along the way and that their family members may accept and love them,” says Dominga Villegas, who helped organize Palm Sunday mass with palm fronds for more than 200 teens at the Pecos home.

Since 2014, hundreds of thousands of children under the age of 18 have come alone in increasing numbers to seek safety and a better life in the United States. According to US Customs and Border Protection data, border patrol has encountered more than 11,000 unaccompanied minors per month on average since October.

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

If unaccompanied minors are arrested or surrender themselves to US officials after crossing the border without authorization, they are held in Department of Health-managed facilities until the government verifies a family member or sponsor to ensure they can be safely released.

Controversy has erupted among the last three U.S. administrations, particularly when the number of minors crossing the border has surged and shelters like the one at Fort Bliss are being hastily set up, where media access is severely restricted.

As they await release, many teenagers struggle with regret and low self-esteem, faith leaders told The AP. They are struck not only by the trauma they fled, but also by guilt for fleeing, sometimes without saying goodbye to loved ones who raised them — and for ending up in a place that is far Far from her dreams with no clear path ahead.

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

At the end of the 10-hour day, she saw them sit more upright as she encouraged them to “trust in the identity that the children of God give us, regardless of race and our situation.”

It’s the same message that priests bring through Mass and Confession, even to youth who aren’t Catholic but approach them anyway because “they just want to talk,” said Rev. Brian Strassburger, a Jesuit who dedicated himself ministers to youth in Brownsville and celebrates Mass across the border at a migrant camp in Reynosa, Mexico.

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

Many of the teens who have been active in their churches at home volunteer to read the Bible or sing psalms. Sacred music helps calm others, said Roland Guerrero, who has been bringing his guitar, microphones and sheet music to Fort Bliss on all but a few Sundays for the past year.

His commitment to social justice and migrant rights goes well beyond this service. Bishop Seitz, the Jesuit priests, and many other faith leaders also provide shelter, food, and intercession on both sides of the border.

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

He likens it to sowing seeds of hope – as in “Montaña,” a favorite song of Catholic and Protestant children in care. 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 let her sway. Then they start dancing again.”

The Associated Press’s religion coverage is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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Prayer, worship lift unaccompanied migrant teens into shelters | lifestyles

Source link Prayer, worship lift unaccompanied migrant teens into shelters | lifestyles

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