Welcoming the Hungry, Sick, and Afraid
A church plant in Arizona is living the gospel by receiving people seeking asylum and helping them get to places of resettlement.
Pastor Israel Camacho prays with asylum seekers who are being welcomed and hosted at Iglesia Nueva Esperanza.
Pastor Israel Camacho believes that sharing the gospel is not just about words. That’s why he, his wife, Karla, and their congregation have been welcoming busloads of immigrants to their church, Iglesia Nueva Esperanza, an RCA church plant in Mesa, Arizona. (Translated, the name means New Hope Church.)
For the last three weeks, one or two Homeland Security buses have arrived every day at the doors of the church, delivering 25 to 45 families, or about 50 to 95 people. These people, arriving with the clothes on their backs and a plastic bag of belongings each, have traveled for weeks—even months—from their home countries of Honduras or Guatemala to the United States’ border.
Upon arrival at the border, the families—often a single parent with one or two children—report to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that they are here to apply for asylum, seeking international protection in the face of fearful and threatening living conditions. The families are put in detention centers, usually for five to six days, while ICE processes paperwork.
In order for ICE to release the asylum seekers from the detention center, a family member in the U.S. must claim responsibility and be able to provide an address for resettlement. Once this family connection is confirmed, a Notice to Appear is issued, requiring the asylum seeker to appear in an immigration court near the place of resettlement on an appointed date. After the asylum seeker presents evidence to support the claim for needed protection, the judge makes a decision either to grant asylum or to have the person removed from the country.
After ICE releases the families from the detention centers, they are put on a bus and sent to Nueva Esperanza. In years past, these people have been dropped off at bus stations, left without a way to call their family members and without any money or resources.
This year, due to recently developed connections and relationships with local officials and police departments, the church began receiving calls.
“They said, ‘We need help. If we have people we’re releasing, are you guys willing to welcome them and help them get to their destinations?’” recalls Camacho. “[We said,] ‘Instead of just dropping them off at the bus stations, bring them to the churches.’
“The first thing we do is take them inside and let them know that they’re in a church. When they get on the bus, they don’t know where they’re going,” says Camacho. “So, we tell them, ‘This is a church. You’re released from the tension.’”
A group from the church then starts making calls, contacting the relatives so travel arrangements can be made for the asylum seekers, typically by bus or airplane. Some families are only at the church for a few hours, others are there for a few days. It all depends on what tickets are available.
In the meantime, Nueva Esperanza promises to house, feed, and prepare the asylum seekers for their travels. About two dozen volunteers from the church make this happen every day. One group makes the calls, and another group transports families to bus stations and the airport daily—not just dropping them off, but seeing them through security and onto the plane.
“You see the whole church involved, helping however they can: hosting families in their houses, taking them home to shower, and bringing food. They’ve been really involved,” says Camacho.
And the community has stepped up, too.
“What has been a blessing is the connections with other churches close to us—a Catholic church, a Mormon church, and other ministries. In the past, there was no connection at all,” says Camacho. “Churches are getting involved [and we’re] planning to get others … so they can host, to do the same thing we’re doing here.”
Even with church and community involvement, the work is hard as Nueva Esperanza daily encounters high volumes of people in need and has limited resources to meet them.
“Every day is different,” says Camacho. “We don’t actually know a set schedule for the buses to come in. We just prepare the space to welcome a group of people. … It’s a lot of pieces coming together at the same time. And while you’re doing that, you have a call that tomorrow another bus is coming.”
Tomorrow turns into today, another bus comes, and there’s another two on the horizon. There is no definite end in sight.
“We asked the Homeland Security guy who contacted us [how much longer], and he said, ‘I don’t know; ask God,’” says Camacho. “People are still coming, and they don’t know what to do with them. They’re at full capacity; that’s why they turn to us, the church.”
But, in the face of uncertainty, the church is committed to helping and loving these people seeking asylum, families who have left their homes because of violence, gangs, corruption, and threats on their lives.
“This is about families,” says Camacho. “Every family’s story is different. … When you hear their story, it gets to you. You see fear [still] in their eyes. This is about loving them the way Christ would love them.
“We are living the gospel here. A few of the state senators have come to watch and see what we’re doing because they didn’t even know this was happening. We told them, ‘We’ll let you do the politics; let us be Jesus to these people.’”
Camacho says the biggest need right now is financial. Many families are traveling to cities such as Chicago, Boston, and New York, which requires a three- to four-day bus trip. While the U.S. relatives pay for the ticket, the family does not have money for food along the way, so INE has been providing families with $40-60 to help cover meal expenses.
If you’d like to help these families and others like them, the RCA’s refugee crisis fund provides emergency care and trauma counseling resources to people who have been displaced. Donations can be made online (U.S. only) at www.rca.org/refugee-crisis-fund or sent via mail to Reformed Church in America, Attn: Finance Department, 4500 60th St. SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49512, or, in Canada, to Regional Synod of Canada, PO Box 5070 Stn LCD1, Burlington, ON L7R 3Y8. Please make checks payable to Reformed Church in America and designate “Refugee Crisis Fund” on the memo line.
Photo courtesy Israel Camacho