Prayer and worship to lift up unaccompanied teens living in shelters

Bob Guerra, a Catholic deacon, has meticulously packed his favorite crucifix and a Spanish-language bible, as well as hundreds of Communion wafers, in Ziploc bags, into a plastic storage container.

Prayer and worship to lift up unaccompanied teens living in shelters

He then lugs it about a mile to Fort Bliss on the outskirts El Paso where he assists in celebrating Mass for hundreds upon thousands of migrants teens under a tent shelter.

This shelter, along with similar facilities in the southwest, was created by the Biden administration and predecessors to address the influx of minors who crossed the U.S.-Mexico frontier without their parents or guardians. The clergy and volunteers who visit the shelter offer comfort and healing for the young people they serve.

Guerra describes the faith of the teens he sees every Sunday as they kneel before a cross and receive Communion. Guerra plans to give them miniature crosses made by local nuns and homemade cookies on Easter Sunday.

Elena, who was then 15 years old, was one of the teens who prayed fervently at Fort Bliss last year during unaccompanied child arrivals. Because of her dangerous situation, she asked that she not be identified.

According to Elena, she had been praying for God for several weeks that she would allow her to leave the shelter. When other girls were being held became "inconsolable", she prayed for their release. She began to worry that God might not be interested in her prayers, and she prayed for forgiveness.

Two months prior to her release, she was able to continue her life by receiving the sacraments, including Communion, which was distributed at a Mass that Mark Seitz, the Catholic bishop of El Paso celebrated.

Elena said that she felt like "a peace" when he arrived. She was referring to Holy Week with family far away from El Paso. "God was there to help us through so many days without our family."

She was so thankful for Mass at the shelter with her mother in Guatemala that she made a friendship bracelet for Seitz. Seitz has several bracelets on his right wrist.

Seitz spoke of the hundreds of teenagers he has ministered since Easter at Fort Bliss.

The Rev. Rafael Garcia, pastor at Sacred Heart Parish, four blocks from downtown El Paso's border, celebrates Mass there as he did at other shelters over the past five years.

The Jesuit priest said, "All of us who go, we find that we are transformed ourselves." "Not everyone comes (to Mass), but people who do come are people of strong faith."

The Rev. said that teens are often suddenly and tragically separated from their families and their country of origin, and "their only strength" is prayer. Jose de la Cruz Longoria is a pastor at five Catholic churches in Pecos, Texas who ministers to the teens living at the shelter. "That's why we need to show them at Mass that God loves and forgives.

Children in shelters ask God for help in their uncertain journeys and for the loved ones they have lost. They murmur in Spanish and Indigenous languages as they pray at makeshift altars.

Dominga Villegas, who organized Palm Sunday Mass with palm fronds for over 200 teens at the Pecos shelter, said, "They pray for the friends lost on their way, and that the family members might accept them and love them."

Since 2014, thousands of children under 18 have fled their homeland to seek safety and better lives in America. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, Border Patrol has seen more than 11,000 unaccompanied minors per month since October.

Many people have no family but are reunited with their parents or sent to family members in America to escape poverty and violence.

Unaccompanied minors who cross the border unaccompanied are arrested and turned in by U.S. authorities. They are then placed in shelters managed by the Department of Health and Human Services, until the government has vetted a sponsor or family member to make sure they can be released.

The past three U.S. administrations have seen a surge in minors crossing the border suddenly. Emergency intake shelters such as Fort Bliss were quickly arranged. Controversies have erupted over conditions and length of youths' stays at these facilities. media access to these facilities is restricted.

Many teens have low self-esteem and regrets while they wait for their release, according to faith leaders. Many teens are affected by trauma, as well as the guilt of fleeing their loved ones, and the fact that they ended up in a different place than they imagined.

They don't yet have any taste for the light at the end of this tunnel. They don't want to believe that this is already a victory and blessing from God," Lissa Jimenez, a psychologist, said. She held a one-day spiritual retreat at the Pecos facility last March.

She encouraged them to stand straighter by the end of the ten hour day.

The same message priests convey through confession and Mass is also for youths who may not be Catholic, but still approach them because they "just want to talk." Brian Strassburger is a Jesuit priest who ministers to homeless youths in Brownsville. He also celebrates Mass at Reynosa, Mexico's migrant camp.

"We try and give them comfort, assure that God is with us. He said that their parents love them still.

Many teens from their home churches volunteer to read Scripture and chant psalms. Roland Guerrero, a Fort Bliss resident who brought his guitar, microphones, and music sheets every Sunday for the past year, stated that sacred music can help ease others.

His efforts to promote social justice and protect migrant rights go beyond his ministry. The Jesuit priests, Bishop Seitz, and many other religious leaders provide shelter, food, and advocacy on both side of the border.

Guerrero said that he knew what he was doing as a Band-Aid, as he prepared for his drive to the shelter. It doesn't mean it's bad, but faith is the only way to see what's happening inside each child.

He likens it to planting hope seeds, just as in "Montana", a favourite song of Catholic shelter children. It is based on the Gospel verse, which states that even a tiny mustard seed can be enough to move mountains.

Guerrero strumming his vintage Gibson guitar sings "Esa Montana se Movera" They sway. They start dancing again."

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