Grace and Peace Church associate pastor JohnEric Zayas takes the stage during the church’s Easter’s service. | Grace and Peace/Facebook

Immigrants who recently arrived from Latin American countries got to experience their very first Catholic Easter Sunday in the United States on April 9 with a family-friendly “Easter Eggstravaganza” event put on by North Austin’s Grace and Peace Church.

According to the church press release, it featured a “10,000-egg Easter egg hunt, games, activities, and music, and more.” Associate pastor JohnEric [sic] Zayas said, and the North Austin church wanted to give them a sense of community. He said that around 630-650 people attended, including some migrant families. 

“Sunday was incredible,” Zayas said. “We were very excited to be able to provide meals to family and the Easter egg hunt, we had some music and some fun for the families.” 

Grace and Peace Church is located in the northeast corner of Austin, recently moving to the newly built North Austin Center, 1856 N. LeClaire St. Its congregation comes from North Austin and the neighboring Belmont Cragin and Hermosa communities. Zayas told Austin Weekly News that, as the growing number of asylum-seekers from South American countries made their way to Chicago – some bused in from Florida and Texas – they had to do something to help.

“Chicago is a welcoming city for migrants, especially those who are fleeing political persecution and [seeking] asylum,” he said. “Many people who we engaged with have gone through difficult situations. They’re here looking for a fresh start, and the safe environment for the families, and to have a portion of the American Dream. They want to be able to have a safe place for their kids to live and a safe place to work.”

Last September, Araceli, whose real name is not being used to protect her identity, came to the United States with a few family members, including her son, pregnant daughter-in-law, her sister and four children, to seek asylum. 

Araceli, who is a trained seamstress, left behind her own seamstress shop and one of her daughters in her home country, Venezuela, Like many Venezuelan migrants seeking a better future, she came to Chicago after initially arriving in Texas. The 19-day-long-journey to the United States was not easy, though Araceli is thankful the family did not have to cross the jungles of the Darien Gap, deemed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as one of the world’s most dangerous refugee and migrant routes. The family initially traveled to Panama, and in four days, the family made their way from Panama to Mexico, where they, unfortunately, fell at the hands of a smuggler who intended to abduct the family but ultimately let them go. Araceli thanks God for making it safely to the United States in September 2022. 

Zayas said migrants usually arrived in the country with little more than the clothes on their backs – and the fact that many of them arrived in the fall of 2022, just as the cold was setting in, made the church’s mission even more urgent.

“We had to feed people and clothe people, because it was a very dangerous [situation],” he said. “We were fortunate enough to be able to work with the donors.”

As soon as Araceli and her family arrived in Chicago, the church helped them by providing food, clothes and shelter. Ultimately, Grace and Peace church helped them find permanent housing in the North Austin area. Since last fall, other asylum-seekers have settled in the North Austin and Belmont Cragin area while others have ventured further out, Zayas said. 

Helping asylum-seekers find housing is especially important to Grace and Peace, Zayas said, given that the shelters the migrants were sent to would only accept men, or only women. 

“At Grace and Peace, we wanted to keep families together,” he said. “We housed a lot of families, and we were able to help them find housing. We were able to help them find some furniture and some basic essentials they would need for their new homes, so we were able to do a lot of that through our connection and our network.”

Araceli said in Spanish that the church not only helped them initially, but they helped them find a home so they could settle in. “They helped us find a home, move and pay an initial deposit,” adding between all family members, they had saved enough money to cover three-months-rent before moving. 

The family is adapting well, she said, and she often volunteers at the church, helping provide food and clothes to other migrants. She will apply for asylum as soon as she has the funds to pay for the application and legal fees. A few of the family members who traveled with her have successfully applied. 

Like many South American asylum-seekers, Araceli speaks little to no English, but given that the church caseworkers tend to be bilingual, a language barrier hasn’t been much of an issue. She will soon start taking English lessons and is happy to see her grandkids are learning the language in school. 

“I thank God for the Grace and Peace Church,” she said in Spanish. “It truly has been our rock.” 

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...