Since April, the Long Beach Convention Center has been housing migrant children who have nowhere to go, while authorities have searched for adult family members and sponsors in the country. Almost 1,600 unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, most fleeing violence and poverty, have lived there in recent months.
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles successfully requested to begin holding weekend masses at the refuge in May. But now that the refuge is closing, the masses are ending as well.
The last Mass, held on July 18, was a celebration of the next step for these children, but for church service volunteers it was a “bittersweet” end to a “meaningful and intense ministry,” as they said. ‘called.
“At first I was apprehensive that so many children are attending Mass without their parents,” said Cynthia Marie Powell, who was Eucharistic minister every week. “However, when I looked into the eyes of each child, I deeply felt the presence of our Lord, and I was very aware of their respect for the Blessed Sacrament.”
A descendant of Japanese, Mexican and Welsh immigrants, Powell said she was drawn to working with migrant children at the shelter, in part to help them start anew in America with their families and sponsors.
“I find that immigrants are becoming regular members of American society,” she said.
Powell and the shelter volunteers had to do important work themselves to work at the shelter, including eight hours of on-site training, fingerprinting and regular COVID-19 testing.
The emotional and spiritual rewards for this time, however, were “immeasurable,” said Powell.
Volunteer priests who celebrated Sunday Masses often found that children needed other sacraments. After masses, several children lined up to confess and pray with the priests.
“I met a girl after mass who had been at the shelter for a few weeks,” recalls one of the volunteer priests, Father Budi Wardhana, pastor of Saint Lucia Church in Long Beach. “I thought she wanted [the] sacrament of reconciliation, but she said, ‘No Father, I really miss my parents.’
Father Wardhana, who came to America from Indonesia to seek political asylum in 1999, said, “I prayed for her. I thank God [for] the opportunity to bring the joy of God to these suffering children!
Father Wardhana recruited his friend Rafael Alvarez, a seminarian at the Queen of Angels Center for Priestly Formation. Alvarez and his family emigrated from Mexico to the United States, which he says gives him “a great love in a special way for our refugee brothers and sisters.”
“It was a blessing for me to be able to be a part of this trip,” he said. “Pray with [the children], I realized that often all they needed was someone to hear them. Even though we are not family, they knew we cared for them.
The community mobilized to help provide the children at the shelter with the necessities and comfort during their stay. The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul organized a collection of toiletries, collecting nearly 200 packets of toothpaste, toothbrushes, shampoo, feminine hygiene items and rosaries. They also held a Día de los Niños celebration at the shelter and brought toys and a magician.
Although their work at the shelter is over, Powell believes his journey with the migrant children is far from over. As a lawyer, she volunteers with the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project as an advocate for immigrant children who will have to navigate court proceedings once they leave federal emergency shelters.
“I will never forget the profound experience of being with migrant children to receive Holy Communion,” she said. “I pray that the migrant children of Central America that I have met at the Center can live here with their families or sponsors.