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East Harlem Church Welcomes Migrants Bussed to New York City

Moments after leading Sunday service at the First Spanish United Methodist Church in early September, Rev. Dorlimar Lebrón Malavé was approached by two unexpected visitors. The men identified themselves as Venezuelan migrants seeking asylum in the United States. Both had been separated from their wives during their months-long journey across South and Central America. And both had spent the last few nights on park benches after being bussed to New York City from immigration detention centers in Texas.

“I’m not exactly sure how they found us,” says Malavé, the lead pastor at the church. “Somebody in New York must be telling them: ‘Go to The People’s Church. They will help you there.’”

This house of worship, more commonly known as The People’s Church, has a long history of supporting the immigrant communities that form the bedrock of East Harlem, which stretches from 96th Street to the south and Fifth Avenue to the west all the way to the Harlem and East Rivers. 

Now, the church’s leaders and congregation are joining a patchwork of nonprofits, community groups and small businesses as they assist migrants arriving from Texas—a campaign by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to send asylum seekers to so-called “sanctuary cities.”

The church is located on a street corner, with reddish brick walls and dull amber windows that don’t appear to let in much light. Its colorful exterior and triangular roof set it apart from the low-rise buildings and shops that line the rest of the block.

In recent weeks, leaders at the church have been reviving crisis response programs that helped East Harlem residents weather the first two years of the pandemic. The programs operate through mutual aid agreements, giving participants access to clothes, food and other necessities in exchange for help distributing the items to others. While migrants who visited the church expressed gratitude for the programs, most are desperate to earn a paycheck so they can begin sending money to relatives back home.

“We want to work,” said Joel Ruiz, a 29-year-old from Caracas, Venezuela, who was among the roughly two dozen immigrants present at a church food drive on Sept. 17. “We want to show that we can be self-sufficient and contribute to the community.”

Finding community has been a tall order for most other migrants coming to New York. The city has pledged to welcome asylum seekers and provide them with housing and other essentials, but nonprofit groups say navigating the local shelter system is a near impossible task for the new arrivals.

“The shelter system is built for people who speak the language, know the city and have some sort of state or federal ID card,” said Ilze Thielmann, director of Team TLC NYC, a nonprofit that has been helping immigrants find housing. “And that’s not the profile of the people who are arriving in droves to the city right now.”

The People’s Church is one of many organizations working to fill gaps in the city’s social safety net. It’s become a temporary refuge for migrants like Ruiz, who’s been doing odd jobs like loading furniture for cash while awaiting the arrival of his brother from Texas.

Malavé hopes to see more asylum seekers at future Sunday services as word of the mutual aid programs spreads.

“The biggest thing we offer as a church is a sense of family and belonging,” she says. “We want them to know that they’re not alone.”

Written by

Illan Ireland is a student at the Columbia Journalism School covering East Harlem and health care around New York City.