Ministry to Migrant Children at Dallas Convention Center

04.15.21 | Homepage | by Kimberly Durnan

    “I didn’t expect to go over there and do something nice for these kids and end up being sad,” said the Rev. David Petrash after volunteering to offer his pastoral services to the refugee children from South and Central America. “The best thing we can do for them is pray over them.”

    Diocesan clergy answered the call to minister to the 1,500 refugee children staying temporarily at Kay Baily Hutchison Convention Center. Petrash, along with the Rev. Adriana Elliott, the Rev. Debra Vela and her daughter, Mariel Gutierrez, the Rev. Noe Mendez, and Juan Benitez from Gateway of Grace to minister to the children with prayer, a homily and music. The volunteers are working with Catholic Charities and had to get the required clearances before offering their help.

    “We had no idea what to expect,” Petrash said. “We get into this huge room, exhibition hall, it’s full of cots close together and looks to be over 2,000 kids. Some are sitting on their bed, there are soccer balls flying through the air all the time. It looked like what you would see if you went to a middle school during recess, about that same age. They were young, real young. They started gathering around the little stage where we were. They ended up being about 12-deep who wanted to be close to us. Maybe 30 to 40 percent were interested in what we were doing. Those who wanted to talk to us really wanted to talk to us. They were so lonesome for human interaction.”

    According to a story published by WFAA Channel 8, Dallas is receiving $8 million in federal dollars for a 75-day lease which will not be renewed. The children will either be connected to family in the country or moved to a long-term retention facility.

    Seeing the fear and trauma in the young boy’s eyes was difficult for the volunteers. Mendez said he tried to control his emotions, although his voice cracked a few times, as he preached to the boys and told them, ‘God is good all the time.’ “I could see tears in their eyes, and also joy,” They said, ‘thank you Father I will keep those words in my heart. Father can you please pray for peace and for me to be with my family.’”

    Vela said her efforts to speak Spanish brought levity to the situation and made them laugh after she told them they could teach her Spanish. And pretty much every time she spoke Spanish they giggled, she said.

    The clergy are scheduled to visit again on Mother’s Day and plan to include more music, which the boys enjoyed. “Father Noe started out with music from Panama and Central America, and they were so happy and clapping, but I read a lot of sorrow and terror in their eyes,” Vela said. Later, “Adriana told them there was no coincidence that God brought them here, for them to not give up hope and to keep praying to reunite with their family. They were just sweet, sweet boys.”

    Many of the boys asked for Bibles in Spanish and the volunteers are working with Catholic Charities to see if it’s allowed before making efforts to collect the Bibles.

    Elliott said she thought the children would be in their late teens but many looked to be around 10 to 12 years old. “It looks like they haven’t eaten, they are so small,” she said. “These kids are in a really hard place. Pray for these kids. They need a lot of prayers.”

    Benitez said he read three passages from the Psalter and one of the boys asked him about one of the verses and told him his father, a Pentecostal pastor, prayed over him with that same verse before he left Guatemala. Another child was near tears because he had missed the service, so Benitez offered him encouraging words and prayed with the child. "They are so short, tiny and with fear in their eyes," Benitez said. "I told them to be patient, do not be discouraged, keep praying to God and to keep their faith. Everything is going to be all right."