Pastor John Zayas is one of 12 Chicagoans recognized for their service to the community | Provided

The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago honored local pastor John Zayas, who leads North Austin’s Grace and Peace Community Church, as a 2023 Global Citizenship Hero. On Thursday, Zayas was recognized for providing humanitarian support to thousands of South and Central American migrants arriving in Chicago in the fall of 2022. He is one of 12 local leaders selected by the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago as 2023 heroes for their community service.  

“This work wasn’t done by me, it was done by a team,” Zayas said in a phone interview, adding this recognition is very humbling. 

He accepted the award to honor the team and partners who helped and continue to provide humanitarian support to asylum-seekers. 

“Even the word hero makes you feel a little weird. It’s not how I think, I’m a man of compassion,” he said. “It’s more of a team acceptance.” 

In 2022, Zayas reached out to the city’s Office of Emergency Management to see how Grace and Peace Church could help the city welcome asylum seekers bused from the State of Texas. With his church, Zayas helped receive migrants when the buses arrived in the city and provided food and essential supplies to more than 2,000 migrants. 

Grace and Peace Church also provided temporary shelter to over 100 individuals for a period between three to four months, allowing many families to remain together. It continues to provide help. 

“The American Red Cross is proud to honor extraordinary people in our community, especially leaders like Pastor John who stepped up to help the migrants arriving to Chicago last summer,” said Celena Roldán Sarillo, chief executive officer of the American Red Cross of Illinois, in a press release. 

Zayas works with partners like the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the Salvation Army, Transformation Church, New Life Centers and New Life Covenant Church, among others, to provide shelter and distribute food to migrants. But the work goes beyond, as the church helps migrants stabilize and prepare for life in the United States. Migrants get assistance navigating the immigration court system and accessing medical care. Zayas said his church also seeks to provide migrants with skillset training and certifications to prepare them for new jobs, rental assistance and education on their rights as immigrants. 

Zayas said this work is deeply rewarding, but his faith is what motivated him to help. 

“I didn’t do it for recognition, I did it because as a minister I’m called to help,” he said. “The Bible says, ‘Love thy neighbor as yourself’ and the Bible always says welcome foreigners.” 

Since August 2022, over 8,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago, according to city officials, and more are expected to come as the national emergency health authority, known as Title 42, comes to an end. This policy allowed U.S. officials to turn away migrants seeking asylum who came to the U.S–Mexico border on the grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19. But as the pandemic emergency declaration comes to an end, Title 42 expired May 11. Last week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he will continue to send migrants to Chicago and other welcoming cities like Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia. 

While the city, with community partners like Grace and Peace Church and city agencies, has coordinated a citywide response to welcome migrants, it is at capacity to provide adequate shelter and emergency care to the children, adults and families who continue to arrive. Last Tuesday, now former Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot issued an emergency declaration in response to the surge of migrants since last month. More than 200 migrants a day arrived from Texas in late April, Lightfoot said. The city’s shelters are full and hundreds of migrants are now temporarily sheltering in police stations. She called on Gov. J.B. Pritzker to mobilize the National Guard.

Grace and Peace Community Church continues to help, Zayas said. They are looking for partners to house children and adults currently sheltered at police stations and urges local residents and organizations to help this “big effort.” 

“Be patient and be compassionate because we were all migrants at one time,” he said.