By Anacaona Martinez Rodriguez and Amanda Salazar
At the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in El Paso’s “El Segundo” neighborhood, just blocks from the city’s main border crossing to Juarez, Mexico, the Rev. Stephen Pitts worries how parishioners are faring without the many outreach services the church has had to stop, or scale back, under the state’s coronavirus stay-at-home order.
But he is most worried about the emotional toll that the lockdown is having on members.
“These people have survived the violence in Juarez; the fact that they can’t be together now is worse,” Pitts said during a video interview after the state went into lockdown to curb the spread of the virus on April 13. “That’s how they survive everything. I think there’s a lot of loneliness.”
For families at the border who depend on religious institutions and community activities in times of hardship, not being able to congregate and ride out the challenges created by the pandemic together has been particularly difficult, he said.
Organizers of El Segundo Soccer Club, which engages children in league sports and supports the families of its players, also have ceased all games and activities, including plans to take one of its teams to participate in the state championship.
“All of that just canceled right now,” said Juan Adame, one of the coaches of the soccer club, which started in 2011 and has grown to serve about 150 children, ages eight to 18.
“We never thought nine years ago something like this was going to stop all that,” Adame said. “The state tournament is very important for all these kids because it’s been the way that we’ve been kind of selling it to this team, to everybody. ‘If you win state, you’re going to be recognized.’”
Without being able to go to states, he said, the players have lost the possibility of realizing a high-profile win, possibly playing in college and then, just maybe, playing professionally.
Sacred Heart and El Segundo Soccer club serve one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in the country. According to U.S. Census data from El Segundo’s 79901 zip code, the average annual income of residents is $21,000, with 60 percent of the neighborhood living below the poverty line.
Pitts said a strong sense of community, ingrained in the parish and among most El Pasoans, has meant that people were willing to stay home during the pandemic and self-isolate to protect each other, especially the older or sick members of their neighborhood. But the lockdown has kept them from worship and other services the church offers.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the church also has had to stop most of its outreach programs, which included citizenship and adult-education classes, except for the food pantry, which it continues to run.
Because many parishioners do not have internet connections, Sacred Heart has not been able to reach many people through its virtual services and masses. The church’s messages of hope are not reaching enough people, Pitts said.
Additionally, Efren Loya Gomez, an assistant religious director at the Sacred Heart, said many parishioners have reported having problems with landlords and employers during the pandemic.
“There was a lady that stopped me the other day to help her fill out a money order,” he said. “She told me her landlord told her she has to pay $25 dollars a day every day she was late with her rent. If not, he was going to evict her.”
Gomez said some parishioners were suffering economically because they face job losses and were not eligible for federal stimulus money because they were undocumented. “With the pandemic, they’re suffering and they’re stressing out,” he said.
El Segundo Soccer Club executive director Simon Chandler, who founded the league after coaching his own son on a community team, said his players also were experiencing anxiety during the pandemic.
“Their fears are very kid-like fears,” he said. “They’re worried about whether they’re going to pass sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade, what happens if they don’t do the work, that their computer doesn’t work. They have problems with the software and all that stuff.”
Chandler, who also works as the Community Schools Coordinator in the El Paso public school system, was a school teacher when he started the club, figuring it would be a good way to engage the kids in the low-income neighborhood where he taught and lived.
“As an educator, you’re always finding ways to kind of motivate your kids, to hook them into whatever you are doing and so soccer made perfect sense,” he said.
El Segundo is a predominantly Latino area; Chandler estimated that 90 percent or more of the people living in El Paso speak Spanish. Soccer, or fútbol as it is known to much of the world, is one of the most popular sports in Latin America, Spain and Portugal.
The soccer club has multiple teams for kids of all ages. The club also offers services for the members of the players’ families.
While their child or sibling is at practice, relatives can participate in one of the soccer club’s English language courses or citizenship classes. Those programs also have been cancelled due to the coronavirus and stay-at-home order.
Adame, whose younger brother Marcos, 18, has been playing with the Segundo soccer club since it began, said the club plays an important role in the players’ development.
“It exposes the kids here to the outside world, not just in this community,” Adame said. “Even just taking them out to play on the East side of the city, just to take them [to] play every weekend, that’s sort of something big because a lot of parents don’t have a car here.”
Soccer was the way that the club drew the kids in, but it was never the ultimate goal.
“I’m thinking if there’s another word other than ‘family,’ but I can’t think of one,” Adame said. “That’s what it is. I arrived in this community at about 10 years old. My mind is here, my heart is here. Now with this club, it’s my passion.”