Pierce County parishioners bring faith, fellowship to unaccompanied youths awaiting immigration hearings

Margarita Carrillo and Ovidio Peñalver are members of a two-parish team that ministers to teenage boys who are detained at Selma Carson Home in Fife while awaiting immigration hearings. Photo: Stephen Brashear Margarita Carrillo and Ovidio Peñalver are members of a two-parish team that ministers to teenage boys who are detained at Selma Carson Home in Fife while awaiting immigration hearings. Photo: Stephen Brashear

FIFE – Every week, parishioners from two Pierce County sister parishes bring Communion, donated items and family-like fellowship to undocumented, unaccompanied teens awaiting immigration hearings.

It’s a difficult, emotional ministry, said Margarita Carrillo, a mother of four and a member of St. Martin of Tours Parish in Fife.

“Hearing their stories, it’s like my son is telling me the story,” Carrillo said. “A 16-year-old boy is supposed to be tough, but is crying while telling me his story. It breaks my heart,” she said. “Many weeks, I say I’m not going to go back … but then I go back the next week.”

The boys, ages 12–17, are sent to the 23-bed Selma R. Carson Home in Fife after being apprehended by state or federal law enforcement agencies around the country. Operated by Seattle-based Pioneer Human Services under a federal contract, the home works with two federal agencies to assist in family reunification efforts. The boys receive a variety of services, including education, medical care and access to legal, religious and other social services.

The home is located within the boundaries of St. Martin of Tours Parish. “It’s our obligation to take care of all parishioners,” said Ovidio Peñalver, a member of St. Martin’s sister parish, All Saints in Puyallup. “To extend love and caring, and to serve them, is the obligation we have as Christians.”

Echo of an earlier time

The ministry to the youth at Selma Carson Home, which the parishes began in August 2017, hearkens back to the beginning of St. Martin of Tours Parish, said Father Michael Radermacher, pastor of St. Martin’s and All Saints.

When Japanese immigrants living in Fife were interned at the Puyallup fairgrounds during World War II, parishioners visited their neighbors and friends there. Older parishioners “remember passing food and candy through the fence to them,” Father Radermacher said. “They were ministering to those living behind wire. We’re continuing that ministry.”

Most of the boys at Selma Carson are from Central America, fleeing violence in their countries, Peñalver said recently in his parish bulletin (see sidebar). If they can’t find a sponsor here by age 18, they are transferred to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma or self-deport, he said.

Ovidio Peñalver
Ovidio Peñalver, a retired pediatrician and member of All Saints Parish in Puyallup,
leads a weekly Communion service at Selma Carson Home in Fife for
teenage boys awaiting immigration hearings. Photo: Stephen Brashear

At the weekly Communion service offered by the two parishes, Peñalver teaches the boys about the service and has them do the readings. They are led in song by Dino Palazzi, who teaches music at All Saints School and is music director at St. Martin’s. “Some of the kids are pretty gifted musicians,” Peñalver said. “They fill in when the teacher isn’t able to make it.”

After the Gospel reading, they discuss its meaning as a group, and Peñalver distributes the Eucharist. Afterward, there’s fellowship time, which often includes a movie based on the liturgical season. Peñalver, a retired pediatrician, also talks to the boys about things like depression. “Their desire is to be out of that facility and be free,” Peñalver said in the bulletin. “Some boys are enthusiastic and open, others are guarded, but eventually they are all friendly.”

Occasionally, Father Radermacher says Mass for the boys; late last year, he baptized one of the teens (see sidebar). Around Christmas, Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo celebrated Mass, and the boys really loved it, Carrillo said. They also enjoyed traditional Latin American foods made for them by recently migrated parish families. “These families have progressed from guests to hosts,” Father Radermacher said.

Carrillo brings the boys items donated by parishioners, including rosaries and crosses, soaps, T-shirts and snacks. “I organize certain days that we have meals,” she said. “We just love the boys.”

Margarita CarrilloMargarita Carrillo, a mother of four and member of St. Martin of Tours Parish in Fife, ministers to undocumented teenage immigrants at
Selma Carson Home in Fife. Carrillo collects donated rosaries, crosses, T-shirts, snacks and soaps for the boys. Photo: Stephen Brashear

The boys appreciate that the volunteers give of themselves, and that the visits meet their spiritual needs, said David Ortega, Selma Carson’s program services manager. “They look forward to seeing [the parishioners] and they ask when they’re coming,” he said. “When someone misses, they ask where they are.”

“Our ministers are amazing and are so dedicated to being a strong, supportive and faithful presence for the kids, in a time in their lives when nothing is certain,” Aleah Patulot, a pastoral associate at All Saints, said in an email. “They would do anything to help them.”

The ministry is rewarding, Peñalver said, but it can be painful. Without notice, boys might find placement with family members in the U.S. or be returned to their homeland.

“We create a bond, then they are gone,” he said. “We care about them, we pray for them. That’s all we can give.”

A baptism at Selma Carson Home

In late 2017, Wilmer, an unaccompanied teenage immigrant detained at Selma Carson Home, was baptized by Father Michael Radermacher, pastor of All Saints Parish in Puyallup and St. Martin of Tours Parish in Fife. Aleah Patulot, a pastoral associate at All Saints, shared the story in the parish bulletin. The following is an edited excerpt:

Wilmer stood ready for his baptism, hair combed and wearing a new white shirt with the fold lines still visible. From far away he looked baby-faced, but up close, small scars were visible on his cheeks, forehead and around his mouth. He had nicks in the back of his head from an overzealous friend who had cut his hair with a razor. Wilmer, at 16, had arrived five months earlier to the U.S. from Honduras.

Wilmer rode on top of a train known as La Bestia — The Beast — from southern to northern Mexico. After the train, he walked for 10 days in the desert. He said he made the journey with his friends. “Where are your friends now?” I asked. “No sé,” he said: “I don’t know.” When asked to write his name and place of birth for the parish baptism register, he could not.

A team of parishioners from All Saints and St. Martin of Tours visits the nine boys currently living at Selma Carson Home. Team member and longtime All Saints parishioner Ovidio Peñalver writes: “Most boys are from Central America, fleeing the violence in their countries. … They are nice kids who have gone through hell to get here. They deserve better.”

The night of Wilmer’s baptism, the boys wore detention-issued rubber slippers and tube socks, athletic shorts and sweatshirts. They looked like kids. Wilmer stood in front, next to Father Michael, in his fancy clothes. He seemed so happy to be baptized, and wore a slightly embarrassed smile at all the attention.

In a place they cannot escape from the realities of their situations, these boys come every Wednesday night, audaciously seeking that elusive hope in a bright future and to remember that they are not alone. Ovidio is right; these kids deserve better. There is room for every child. Let us all remember the boys at Selma Carson in our prayers.

Editor’s note: Aleah Patulot recently reported that Wilmer is now living in Florida with an aunt.

Michelle Bruno

Michelle Bruno is a member of Kent’s Holy Spirit Parish. Contact her at [email protected].