Newcomers stay and give back to others trying to resettle in New York City
by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — A Brooklyn church has become a refuge and spiritual home for newcomers to New York City at a time when a massive influx of asylum seekers has challenged the city to its core.
First Spanish Presbyterian Church (FSPC) provides assistance, such as food and clothing — with no strings attached — to asylum seekers and others in need as part of what it calls The Good Samaritan Project.
The Spanish-speaking congregation in the Presbytery of New York City has shown love to “us as strangers with no family here; they came and embraced us,” said Francisca, a mother from Argentina who first connected with the church five months ago, along with her husband, Juan David, and their three children.
The family — whose words were translated by Pastor Daniel Rivera — is part of a surge of migrants that New York City has been experiencing for many months. More than 150,000 have arrived in the city since spring 2022, according to The New York Times. The challenge of serving them prompted Mayor Eric Adams to declare a state of emergency last fall, and he has visited countries, such as Mexico, Ecuador and Colombia, to spread the word that the city has reached capacity.
Some of the migrants have been bused in by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott as part of a feud with Adams and, at times, President Biden, over border security. Others have arrived through other means. Many have fled Venezuela due to political unrest and economic decline.
Rivera, the only paid staff member at FSPC, initially expected asylum seekers to be short-term visitors. But many are now worshiping at the church and finding ways to be of assistance to other asylum seekers and church members.
“They feel at home because we speak their language,” Rivera said. “They feel at home because they did not simply get something from somebody that is rich or a different culture or handed down. They don’t feel that way. They feel that they are part of our community, part of our families.”
The migrants arriving in NYC hail from many parts of the world, including South America, Central America, various parts of Africa, and Haiti, Rivera said.
Scores are “coming back every Sunday, and they aren’t asking for anything in return,” Rivera said. “Of course, there’s the hot meal that they enjoy every week. It’s such a blessing, but they also come for prayers for all those who are on their way here.”
The Good Samaritan Project got its start about a year and a half ago — with a nudge from Deacon Berney Garcia — when the church began assisting a family of five from Colombia who came to visit the church while staying at a shelter. Then “little by little,” word started spreading that it was a welcoming church, Rivera said.
Within two to three months, there were 40 people coming, he said. “Six months later, we got 80,” which has increased to “150 to 200 people a week, worshiping with us, sharing, breaking bread with us.”
Furthermore, “they’re also inviting others,” he said. “Now, they’re the missionaries.”
Juan David said being able to turn to the church helps to ease the anxieties that families feel when they come to the United States not knowing what to expect.
“The church is like a release valve to release the tension,” he said through Rivera, “because otherwise in the shelters where they are, they are clustered in there and (don’t) know where to go. So at least once a week, this place serves as a healing place for them to actually become part of a community.”
One of the ways the church helps asylum seekers is through its Deacons Closet, which is a clothing program. Initially, the congregation’s older members went into their own closets and cupboards and started giving out items, including clothing, shoes and canned goods. Then they started asking relatives, who also emptied their closets, Rivera said.
The newcomers are allowed to select clothes for themselves. When it comes time to eat, they can take a tray and serve their family as well as individuals who have no relatives with them.
“There’s dignity, humanity,” Rivera said. “That way we feel that nobody is giving anything to anybody. We are both receiving and giving.”
When Francisca and her family arrived at the church, mainly to obtain clothing, “they received us with love and a hot meal, which makes a lot of difference,” she said.
Now Francisca is volunteering at the Deacons Closet and helping to serve food. Volunteers are crucial to the operation and also benefit from the work themselves, said Virginia Ribot, a liaison with the Good Samaritan Project.
“It’s very important for the volunteers to come in, not only for us or for the work, but … because whoever’s depressed in the hotel or needs prayer or needs for their mind to be occupied, they come here and they feel they’re making a difference,” Ribot said.
Prior to the influx of asylum seekers, the church was down to just 20-40 members attending each week — primarily older people, and so the newcomers have helped to revitalize the church. Francisca praised the members for their warmth.
“Even though in their retirement age as they are, they have not lost patience with our children,” she said. “They still have a lot of empathy” and they make the children feel “they’re part of their family.”
Juan David said he and his children have spent time helping people with disabilities, including those who need help walking or people in wheelchairs. The family has also been involved in other church activities.
The parents refer to their 10-year-old daughter as “the future pastor” because of her active role in the church. She has read the call to worship and selected scriptures during worship. She directed the service one Sunday. She also does public prayers.
The church continues to work with incoming families with the help of individual donations and assistance from the community. “We got two or three organizations on board with us, but the more help we get, the more needy we also get,” Ribot said.
Nevertheless, the church is committed to serving the newcomers because “we’re walking the gospel,” Rivera said. “You visited me when I was sick. You clothed me. You gave me food when I was hungry. …. We did it. We have done it. We’re doing it. And this is part of the mission that God is helping us develop. We are the embodiment of what we believe is Matthew 25.”
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