How a West Side Congregation is Helping Migrants Bused to Chicago From the Border

It’s been more than six months since hundreds of migrants arrived in buses from the Texas border. At Grace and Peace Church in North Austin, a congregation is helping asylum seekers through their journeys.

The Rev. John Zayas runs the operation, and it’s all hands on deck inside the food pantry.

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“We do a food bank in partnership with the Greater Chicago Food Depository,” Zayas said, “and what we have done here is tried to help families in our communities with food they don’t receive.”

That mission now goes beyond the food pantry.

Last year, Zayas and his wife, Iliana, opened the doors of their church to welcome dozens of migrants arriving on buses from Texas.

“Once they were coming here,” Zayas said, “we were able to feed them, clothed them. They received showers and a night stay, then OEMC were able to place them in different places to live.”

Cresbely Ramirez is one of the migrants who arrived at Grace and Peace Church on a bus from the border.

“I got here pregnant,” said Ramirez, who came from Venezuela. “I remember having to walk five to six hours under hot sun, rain and without eating sometimes. My legs and hands were all scratched, but thankfully God gave us the opportunity to get here.”

The mother of two said the congregation has given her family a fresh start from the hardships of Venezuela.

“We saw the effort the church takes to help others,” Ramirez said, “and that gave us motivation every day. When we have the opportunity, we come to volunteer to help others who’ve been through experience likes ours.”

People helping people is what Zayas said started to happen. Demand for services started to grow.

“Returning migrants that we get weekly, about 150 that come here to receive services,” Zayas said. “We still get families who are coming from other states trying to find benefits and resources.”

Zoreidy Pereira and her two kids spent 10 days walking through the Panamanian jungle. Her 10-year-old son, Emmanuel, made the long journey with one leg.

“I kept getting my crutch struck to the boat, and I struggled to hold on to it,” Emmanuel said. “I would be here, and then when I tried to take it out, like this, it would be so hard.”

It’s the first time Pereira is visiting the church in hopes of getting help for her son.   

“I want my son to walk, and in Venezuela I wouldn’t have been able to help even if I worked all day,” Pereira said. “The truth is I want a better future for my kids.”

Emmanuel had his leg amputated when he was 4 years old.

“He has been in and out the hospital,” Pereira said, “and I feel like we are in the last stage. What’s left is for him to get a prosthetic leg and therapy so he can walk and be independent.”

What started as a youth program in 1995 has expanded to a massive operation: a mission Zayas called God’s work.

“I’m called to it, period,” Zayas said. “Not just myself, but a staff of folks that are called to help people. It’s not about a paycheck but helping the folks most marginalized most needed.”

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