BROWNSVILLE, Texas (CNS) -- Almost every Sunday, more than 100 immigrant children under 18 years of age attend Mass at San Felipe de Jesus Church in Cameron Park.
The children, who are mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, entered the United States unaccompanied and are housed in shelters, or centros de refugio, for several weeks while arrangements are made to reunite them with relatives living in the United States or back in their country of origin.
So far, in 2016, more than 26,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America have been apprehended according to figures released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied minors have crossed into the United States in the last five years.
Marist Father Anthony O'Connor, pastor of San Felipe de Jesus Church, which is in the Brownsville Diocese, said most of these children are fleeing from poverty and violence in their home countries. They come to the United States in search of a better life, but that journey is fraught with its own dangers.
"Most of them face some sort of difficulty on the way," said Father O'Connor, who visits four different centros de refugio to hear confessions and visit with the children. "They often pass through moral and physical danger to get here.
"These kids have had to grow up fast," he told The Valley Catholic, Brownsville's diocesan newspaper.
"What they have been through, we can't even imagine," said Barbara Martinez, a parishioner of San Felipe de Jesus Church.
Father O'Connor and his parishioners have responded to the call to make the children feel welcome. A section of the church is reserved for them as they have to be seated together. The children have been attending Mass here for about a year.
"Everybody respects that space," said parishioner Miguel Lopez, who serves as an usher. "People will stand in the back of the church rather than sit there.
"We are not afraid to admit we give them special treatment because we want them to feel special. … I see some of them crying as they pray. We know they are going through a lot. We feel their pain."
"They are received with a lot of love and you can feel the presence of God's love when they are here," said parishioner Yolanda Castillo. "We feel blessed to have them be a part of our community."
The immigrant children attending Mass at San Felipe de Jesus Church for the first time also receive a small gift of welcome, said parishioner Sergio Martinez.
"They are provided with a cross to hang around their necks and they wear them every week when they come to Mass," he said. "I think it is remarkable how they come here with an open spirit."
At Christmastime, the parishioners hosted a posada for the children and in July, they invited them over for a special meal featuring dishes from their home countries. Brownsville Bishop Daniel E. Flores was present for the meal and celebrated Mass.
Carmen Alvear, one of the cooks, researched the cuisine from Central America, hoping to, "get it right." She said some of the children cried tears of joy and sadness when they saw the food.
"They told us they were happy and moved that we took the time to prepare the foods they like but it also made them miss home and their families," she said. "I'll admit, we cried with them."
Guadalupe Gonzalez, another cook, said the children really enjoyed the food and many of them had "seconds and thirds."
"The food is made with a lot of love," said Claudia Gutierrez, a volunteer cook. "We wanted them to eat as much as they wanted."
"I feel very happy and honored to be part of this community of faith," said parishioner Francisca Rodriguez. "We've always been a very united community and having the children here has brought us even closer together because we all want the children to feel at home and we are doing everything we can for them. "We know they are suffering and we hope hearing the word of God carries them through the week ahead."
"We put ourselves in their shoes," said parishioner Guillermo Castillo. "All their worries, all the obstacles they have overcome, their fears about living in a new country, missing their family … it is a sad reality, but we support them as best as we can by giving them love and understanding."
Parishioner Marcos Garcia is relatively new to San Felipe de Jesus Church, having only joined the parish about four years ago.
"I am in awe of this community, of how generous and welcoming everyone is and I believe it comes from Our Lord, first of all and also from Father Tony," he said. "He inspires us to serve and we pray for him constantly, that he will continue to have the strength to minister to these children."
When asked if they had any reservations about the children joining them for Mass, the parishioners all replied, "No," in unison.
"This is the house of God," parishioner David Gomez said. "Everyone is welcome. On the rare occasion the children don't come to Mass, we really miss them. We feel like a part of us is missing."
Ybarra is assistant editor of The Valley Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Brownsville.