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Violence forced them to flee. Now faith sustains these migrants on their journey to the US

TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) — Night after night for six weeks, Erika Hernández knelt outside her home in central Mexico and prayed: “Please, God, don’t let my son turn into a criminal.”

“I prayed a lot. I fasted. My faith was huge,” said the 46-year-old woman, fearing her son would be forcibly recruited by a criminal organization.

It didn’t take long for God to listen, Hernández said. By early June, after being kidnapped by members of the Familia Michoacana drug cartel near Mexico City, her son escaped and the family fled north hoping to cross in the United States.

For many migrants like Hernández, their faith has been essential for coping with their challenging circumstances.

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Hernández and 10 of her relatives spent three months hopping on buses, taxis and walking until they reached the Movimiento Juventud shelter in Tijuana, in northern Mexico, where they are awaiting an opportunity to find a safer home in America.

Before her son’s kidnapping, the idea of migrating to the United States had never crossed Hernández’s mind. Her family owned cattle and several tracts of farmland. They had a good life.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said in early October that about 10,000 migrants per day were heading to the U.S. border. Waves of people riding atop railway cars forced Mexico’s largest railroad to suspend dozens of freight trains.

While many places in Mexico provide shelter for Venezuelans, Haitians and Central Americans, some shelters in Tijuana have seen an influx of Mexicans fleeing violence, extortion and threats by organized crime.

José Guadalupe Torres reached out to God as soon as he left his home in the central state of Guanajuato. His motives mirrored Hernandez’s: His family was threatened by a drug cartel. “We parted ways to be safe,” the 62-year-old said. “But God has always been with us.”

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Now he prays for an appointment that will allow him to enter the United States.

Early this year, the Biden administration launched an online appointment system as a recommended way for migrants to request asylum, though thousands cross the border illegally every day.

“This is the precise time to preach the word of God,” said pastor Albert Rivera, an evangelical who currently provides a roof and spiritual guidance for nearly 400 migrants in Agape, a nearby shelter.

According to Rivera, many migrants saw their children being murdered, suffered through the kidnapping of a family member, or lost everything to pay criminal extortion demands.

“We have received women married to hitmen whose enemies have shot their homes and said: ‘I’ll kill you and your children,’” the pastor said.

His guidance provides comfort for some who feel hopeless while waiting for a better life.

Mariana Flores fled Guerrero, a Pacific Coast state, with her husband and 3-year-old son after organized criminals kidnapped her husband temporarily. She brought her faith with her, but said being at Agape has renewed it.

“God did a miracle for us,” the 25-year-old said. “So even if we feel sad from time to time, attending services helps us forget and we can keep trying to move on.”

Miguel Rayo, 47, traveled from the same Mexican state with just a few possessions, but keeps a Bible on his phone. “I read it when I’m cold, when I’m in need. We want to be renewed and remain close to God,” Rayo said.

Agape welcomes migrants of any faith or ideology, but everyone is encouraged to attend services on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Migrants also pray in small groups several days per week in their dormitories.

A few miles away, Casa del Migrante provides spiritual comfort in addition to a temporary home, daily meals, legal advice and mentorships that help migrants find jobs and schools for their kids. The shelter was established by the Catholic Scalabrinian Missionaries in 1987.

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Every Wednesday afternoon, during one of the Masses celebrated by the Rev. Pat Murphy, an American priest, migrants are invited to participate by sharing their thoughts, petitions and concerns.

“It’s a lovely Mass, a time to gather and share,” said Alma Ramírez, who started working as a volunteer a year ago and recently became a full-time worker at Casa Migrante.

The shelter used to receive only deported men from the U.S. but since 2019, when the surge of migrants increased, entire families and members from the LGBTQ+ community have been welcomed as well.

“We currently have internally displaced people, Mexicans who left states in the South because they faced violence mainly from drug trafficking,” Ramírez said.

Across the shelter’s entrance, a portrait depicting the Virgin Mary greets the newcomers.

“There are migrants who approach the door and once we tell them, ‘You can enter,’ they reply: I knew, since the moment I saw the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, that all would be fine,’” Ramírez said.

Both at Casa del Migrante and Agape, some migrants ask Murphy and Rivera to baptize them. Others request their company to pray for blessings. Many fear for the family members they left behind. Others hope for a good ending on their journey to the United States.

“Open the doors for me, Lord, so that I can cross,” Rivera suggests they say in prayer.

“Imagine the experience of faith,” Rivera said. “Arriving at a place feeling broken, but then you pray to God, fill out your application, you get an appointment and that’s how you arrive in the United States.”

“That’s something they’ll never forget.”

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.