Young Life leaders Eric Collins and Felix Chavez were thrilled to find a group of students eager to hear God’s Word.
But there was a catch.
The young people were inside Freeman Coliseum in San Antonio, behind two security checkpoints and any number of locked doors. They were unaccompanied minors seeking refuge from violence in Central America, held in the custody of the United States government.
In April and May 2021, the Office of Refugee Resettlement temporarily housed 1,500 boys ages 13–17 on the grounds of the sporting arena, just two miles from the school where Collins and Chavez had been struggling to start a Young Life club in the midst of a pandemic. The boys were being kept at the coliseum until their stateside contacts made arrangements to receive them, or they were transferred to another, longer-term facility. When minors cross the border without their parents—whether those parents are ahead of or behind them—they must remain in the care of someone. That someone, for many, is the US government.
The facility became a lightning rod for outrage in San Antonio, with immigrant rights groups, community leaders, government officials, and politicians quarreling about the underage immigration crisis, the right way to deal with it, and who to blame for the problem.
For the Young Life team, the politics were not a deterrent. Freeman Coliseum was in the right place, and the boys arrived at the right time.
“I saw that as our side of town,” Collins said. “God called us to it.”
After a long school year complicated by COVID-19, they were ready to just sit down and talk about Jesus with some teenagers. Chavez, a 59-year-old immigrant from Mexico, felt he was uniquely equipped to care for this particular group of scared, weary young men in need of fatherly reassurance and cultural connection.
He considered just knocking on the coliseum’s front door, but a government facility for unaccompanied minors is not the kind of place a person could just show up at. None of his familiar ministry contacts could get him in either.
“I was desperate to be able to go inside there,” Chavez said. “I wanted to tear down the doors!”
But he felt the Spirit of God telling him to be patient. God would use “different keys,” in Chavez’s words, to open the many doors between him and the people he was called to serve. Then he felt God remind him of Isaiah 55:8: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”
Finally, he heard the local Catholic Charities had been approved to operate inside the shelter. He could go in, if the Catholics would let him and if he agreed to operate within their systems.
He agreed, and they agreed, and on May 3, Chavez and Collins went into the coliseum. Inside, the boys mostly wore government-issued clothing. They had few personal belongings, and what they did have mostly sat piled on cots. One boy kept his teddy bear tied to a lanyard.
That week, Chavez shared a simple message with the children: God is a loving father.
The two Young Life leaders went back again, bringing 700 Bibles donated by a supporter. Each Bible had three stickers: one with a human-trafficking hotline, one with a link to a Young Life ministry website, and one with the first verses of Genesis in Spanish with blanks for them to write their names.
“En el principio, creó Dios a ______. Y ______ estaba desordenado y vacio, y las tinieblas estaban sobre la faz de las aguas.
“Y dijo Dios: sea la luz; y fue la luz. Y vio Dios que la luz era Buena; y separo Dios la luz de las tinieblas.”
“In the beginning, God created ______. And ______ was without form and void, and darkness was on the face of the waters.
“And God said: be the light; and it was the light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.”
Many of the kids, especially those from Central American countries, came from evangelical homes. Chavez’s father-centric messages and the words on the Bibles were familiar and comforting. Chavez said he felt like God told him the children were spiritual seeds he wanted to scatter all over the US.
“Our God is the God of little details,” Chavez said. “Every time I go there, I can see his hand.”
Every time the Young Life leaders went to the coliseum, it was a challenge, though. Often a last-minute wrinkle would threaten to derail the entire visit, making it impossible to say with certainty when they could deliver Bibles or bring in a worship leader. It made the simple administrative victories feel like miracles.
Collins handled the administrative hurdles. Chavez’s job was to be always ready. He had to take whatever opportunity arose and make the most of it.
Working with the boys inside, he said, he seized every moment to remind them that their lives had meaning and purpose. Even as intercom announcements interrupted the services, calling individuals or small groups of boys to gather their things and prepare to leave the coliseum grounds, Chavez encouraged them to think of themselves as men on a mission, brought to the US by God.
The kids weren’t the only ones hearing Chavez’s messages. After the leaders left one day, an official he had befriended sent a photo of a double rainbow that appeared over the coliseum while they were inside. She told him God was blessing their work.
After a couple of weeks, Chavez and Collins got permission to bring in volunteers for a larger event, complete with games and worship music. Officials decided that it was okay, in part because the temporary holding facility was going to be shut down. Young Life staff rallied volunteers, officials expedited background checks, and the group gathered.
The event wasn’t as lively as the ones Young Life hosts in high schools, but what it lacked in buoyancy it more than made up for in appetite. The boys gathered quickly to Chavez, hugging him.
As they began singing, many dropped to their knees and lifted their hands.
The Young Life group distributed new clothes and shoes to boys who had lost theirs or had them stolen on the journey. Chavez, seizing the moment, preached about being clothed in new life and how that was like putting on a new pair of sneakers.
Soon, a chorus of boys who had spent months wearing government-issued rubber sandals with white socks were asking if they too could have “new life sneakers.”
Young Life associate regional director Annie Mays, who oversees the San Antonio Metro Region, called her local church to access a $1,000 emergency fund. She, her husband, and Chavez spent it all emptying the athletic shoe shelves at a nearby Walmart.
In the final week of ministry in the coliseum, before the operation shut down for good, the uptick in intercom announcements and transfers heightened emotions. All Chavez and Collins could do was pray while the boys hugged and cried, knowing they would likely never see each other again as they dispersed to cities across the country.
Finally, on May 22, there were only 66 boys left in the facility. The Homeland Security staff ordered pizzas for everyone. Then the boys were loaded on to buses and sent away. Chavez stayed until the last bus left. Around midnight, he raised his hands to pray over the boys on the roads, commissioning them to carry the gospel across the nation.
“They know about you because of missionaries who were sent out of this nation,” Chavez said. “Now it’s this nation that needs the seed.”
Bekah McNeel is a journalist based in San Antonio.
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