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.”