GIOVANA DEL’ORTA – Associated Press
EL PASS, Texas (AP) – On all but three Sundays after Easter, Bob Gera, a Catholic deacon, carefully packed his favorite crucifix, his Spanish-language Bible, hundreds of communion wafers in chicken sacks, and other liturgical items. in a plastic storage box.
He then drags him 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 teenagers housed in a large tent shelter.
This shelter and similar facilities in the Southwest were established by the Biden administration and its predecessors to combat minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without parents or guardians. For the faithful youth they hold, the clergy and visiting volunteers bring comfort and healing through the sacraments.
“They pray with such devotion, you can see tears rolling down their eyes,” Hera says of the acts of faith of teenagers he witnesses every Sunday after they receive Communion and kneel before a small cross. On Easter Sunday, he plans to give them his own miniature crosses and cookies baked by local nuns.
Among the teenagers who prayed fervently at Fort Bliss during last year’s unprecedented arrival of unaccompanied children was Elena, who was then 15 years old. She asked not to be named again because of the dangerous circumstances due to which she fled to Guatemala.
Elena told the AP that within weeks she had asked God to release her from the shelter as soon as possible. Then, when the other girls also became “inconsolable,” she prayed that they would be released first. As the days went by, she began to worry that God might “miss” her petitions, and prayed for forgiveness.
For two months before her release, she supported the reception of the sacraments, including the Communion administered during a Mass celebrated by the Catholic Bishop of El Paso, Mark Seitz.
“When he arrived, you could feel the peace, what comforts you, what you need,” Elena recalled during Holy Week, which she watches with relatives far from El Paso. “God has been with us to endure so many days without a family.”
At the shelter she was so grateful for the Mass she went with her mother in Guatemala that she wove a friendship bracelet for Hare, who wears a few on her right wrist.
“They believe that if anything gets stronger in their journey,” Zaitz said of the hundreds of teens he has served since last Easter at Fort Bliss.
On most Sundays, Father Raphael Garcia, pastor of the Sacred Heart Parish, located four blocks from the border in downtown El Paso, celebrates Mass there because he has been in various shelters for five years.
“All of us who go believe that we have changed,” says the Jesuit priest. “Not everyone comes (to Mass), but those who come are people of very strong faith.”
Suddenly and often tragically separated from their countries and the families that raised them, “their only strength is prayer,” said Rev. Jose de la Cruz Longoria, pastor of five Catholic parishes around Pecas, Texas, who serves as a teenager in a shelter. there. “That is why it is necessary to show them at Mass that He is a God who loves and forgives.”
In prayers in Spanish and indigenous languages at makeshift altars, children in shelters – most of them 12-17-year-olds from Central America – ask God for help in their lonely, uncertain path and for the loved ones they have left behind.
“They pray for their friends who got lost on the road and that their family members can accept and love them,” said Domingo Vilegas, who helped organize Palm Sunday Mass with palm leaves for more than 200 teenagers at Pecos Shelter.
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. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Service, since October, border patrols have met an average of more than 11,000 unaccompanied minors each month.
Some do not have a family, but many rejoin their parents or travel to other family members in the United States to avoid poverty and violence.
If unaccompanied minors are detained or surrendered to U.S. officials after an unauthorized border crossing, they are held in facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services until the government checks on a family member or sponsor to ensure they can be safely released.
With the last three U.S. administrations, especially when the number of minors crossing the border is growing suddenly and emergency shelters such as at Fort Bliss hastily organized, controversy erupted over the conditions and length of stay of young people at these facilities where access to media severely restricted.
In anticipation of their release, many teenagers are struggling with regrets and low self-esteem, AP believers said. They are beaten not only by the trauma from which they fled, but also by the guilt of escaping, sometimes not saying goodbye to their beloved relatives who raised them, and for being in a place far from their dreams, without a clear path ahead.
“They have no taste until the end of the tunnel. They cannot afford to feel that this is a victory and a blessing from God, ”said Lisa Jimenez, a psychologist who conducted a one-day spiritual retreat at the Pecos in March.
By the end of the ten-hour workday, she saw them sitting upright and encouraged them to trust “the identity that gives us that we are children of God, regardless of race and our situation.”
This is the same message that priests carry through Mass and confession, even for young people who are not Catholic but still approach them because “they just want to talk,” said priest Brian Strasburger, a Jesuit who serves as a youth shelter. in Brownsville and celebrates a Mass across the border at a migrant camp in Reynosa, Mexico.
“We try to comfort them, to assure them that God is with them. That their parents still love them, ”he said.
Many teens who have been active in their churches at home volunteer to read the scriptures or sing psalms. Sacred music helps reassure others, said Roland Guerrero, who brought his guitar, microphones and notes to Fort Bliss on all Sundays except the couple, throughout the year.
His efforts on social justice and migrant rights go far beyond this ministry. Bishop Zaitz, Jesuit priests and many other religious leaders also provide shelter, food and propaganda on both sides of the border.
“I know I’m making a band-aid,” Guerrero said of Sunday’s music service during Lent as he prepared to leave for the shelter. “It does not demean him because in faith there is no way to know what is going on inside an individual child.”
He compares this to sowing the seeds of hope – just like in “Montaña,” a favorite song of Catholic and Protestant children from the shelter. It is based on gospel verses that faith, even as insignificant as a mustard seed, is enough to move mountains.
“Esa montaña se moverá (this mountain will move),” sings Guerrero, playing his old Gibson acoustic guitar. “I have them fluctuating. Then they start dancing again. “
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