The Immigrants, My Friends
Let me introduce to you to some wonderful people I will never be able to forget.
Twenty-seven years ago, my wife and I came to New York with our two children expecting to start one Hispanic congregation and then return to our home in Michigan. Now our children have made the Northeast their home, and we have two grandchildren. We will have roots in the Northeast the rest of our lives.
Most undocumented immigrants arrive with the same expectation, go north for a few years, and return home. Then children are born, friends made, and lives established.
Let me tell you about some of the undocumented immigrants I have known.
Carlos Fled from Peru
Carlos fled Peru because of political persecution, but without proper documentation. He had worked in sales in his homeland, but since his English was limited, he accepted a job in a factory constructing metal sheds. He began attending La Iglesia Cristiana, where I served as minister, and frequently requested prayer for his family back in Peru. The salary at the factory was not great, but Carlos was able to begin saving to bring his family to New York.
Early one morning, I received a call from the hospital. Carlos had been injured at work and I was needed to translate. A piece of metal had slipped off the construction line and Carlos’s arm had been severely lacerated. I translated as the doctor sutured the arm, but Carlos’s only concern was when he would be able to return to work. He broke into tears when the doctor said he would not be able to work for weeks. How would he be able to pay his rent, buy groceries, and purchase the tickets for his family to join him in New York?
The congregation made arrangements for Carlos to stay in the basement of the church while he recovered. He returned to work the next week. Having saved for months, Carlos was ecstatic the day he purchased airline tickets for his wife, Mercedes, and their three children. Members of the church helped him find a small garage apartment and bought toys for his children. The day his wife and children arrived was the first time they had ever seen snow.
Today all three children have graduated from college. One is running the re-election campaign of a U.S. senator, another is a teacher, and his youngest is an aide for a U.S. representative.
Carlos and his wife, Mercedes, stopped me after church a few weeks ago and told me they would be retiring in about two years and moving back to Peru to a house they bought several years ago. I am positive their children will remain in New York, and once they have grandchildren, my guess is Carlos and Mercedes will be staying here also.
Antonio Came from El Salvador
Antonio used the same “coyote” (a guide who smuggles undocumented immigrants across the border) that his sister and brothers had used years before to leave war-torn El Salvador. He quickly found a job cleaning carpets with a small company.
He immediately began attending worship services, and I baptized him within a month. “Tony” loved the Lord and the church. He would clean the church’s carpets without charge and was willing to do anything he could to help the congregation. He always wanted to do more, and when the worship leader moved away and the church was left without a guitar player, he taught himself to play so he could join the worship team.
Today Tony is married, has twin daughters, and serves as worship leader in his church. He is still cleaning carpets, but now he owns his own carpet-cleaning company.
Ruth Started as a Nanny
A family brought Ruth up from Mexico to serve as a nanny for their two children. Ruth worked for the family for years, leaving the house only to purchase groceries for the meals she would prepare. During one of those trips, she met a member of the church who invited her to attend worship.
Ruth had been active in her church in Mexico, but had not attended services in the United States because she didn’t speak English and was not aware of Spanish-speaking services. At the first service she attended, she gave a testimony about her years in isolation and praised God she had found the church and brothers and sisters in Christ. Today Ruth owns her own home and runs her own cleaning service.
Sonia and Eliberto Left Their Daughter Behind
Sonia and Eliberto crossed the border together; they had to leave their daughter behind with her grandmother. Our congregation had gained a reputation as a place where honest and reliable workers could be found, and Sonia and Eliberto benefited from that reputation. They accepted positions on an estate where Sonia cleaned the main house and Eliberto served as a gardener for the expansive grounds. They lived rent-free in a beautiful three-bedroom house on the estate.
Sonia and Eliberto were baptized on the same evening and later married in the church. When their second daughter was born, my wife translated during the delivery.
Now it was time for their family to be reunited, so plans were made to fly their daughter to New York. Sonia was excited and anxious as we waited at JFK Airport for her daughter to get off the plane. We prayed together as the plane landed.
Passengers began to exit the plane, and we witnessed many emotional reunions. Then the line of passengers stopped. We waited . . . and waited . . . and then Sonia began to cry.
I asked the flight attendant if anyone else was left on the plane. She said she didn’t think so, but she went to check. A few moments later, the attendant reappeared holding the hand of a little girl who had fallen asleep in the back of the plane. I cried as Sonia embraced her daughter.
Oscar Built a Business
Oscar visited the church with friends. He didn’t speak a word of English, so the church’s Spanish-language service and fellowship were blessings. He attended literacy classes in the church basement because he didn’t read or write in his native language.
When I saw Oscar riding a lawn mower for the landscaper at the church, I walked over and congratulated him on finding a job. During the years that followed, I saw him less frequently at church, but I would see him weekly as he continued to work with our landscaper. When his children were born, he would bring them by my home to introduce me to them.
When the landscaper decided to retire, Oscar asked me if he could continue to take care of the church’s grounds. We worked out the price and shook hands. Today he owns Oscar’s Landscaping Service and his own home.
Olga Hid in a Truck
Olga was born in Ecuador. Her family was poor and had little hope of improving their situation. When the children were old enough to travel, her family made their way north.
It’s a long way from Ecuador to Mexico, but that portion of the journey was relatively uneventful. Olga knew that crossing the border into the United States would not be so easy. She could not swim, so crossing through the river was not an option. It would cost more, but she was willing to pay to be hidden in the false floorboard of a semi-truck.
Every time Olga tells the story, she cries. The temperature outside was almost 100 degrees, and no one knows how hot it was inside that cramped floorboard compartment. She doesn’t tell everything that happened on that journey, and I have never asked.
The first time I met Olga, she told me she wanted to be baptized. I baptized Olga and her boyfriend soon afterwards. I officiated at their wedding months later, and presided at a dedication service for their son a few years after that. Today Olga is a nurse at an extended care facility and helps us set up for our monthly worship service there.
Miguel and Andres Hid Their Money
Miguel and Andres left El Salvador to avoid being drafted into the rebel army that controlled their town. They had been in New York several weeks when they found the church. They were surprised to find our services were conducted in Spanish, and they never missed worship.
They worked several jobs before finding their calling as painters. They lived in a house where several families shared rooms and beds. Since they were unable to use banks, they hid their savings in the house. Miguel called me one day at about lunchtime; he was frantic because he had heard someone had broken into the house, but he was unable to leave work so he wanted me to go and check on their money.
I arrived to find the house had been ransacked; beds were overturned, and drawers were pulled out and dumped. I made my way to the attic to check for the money bag, when Miguel and Andres unexpectedly arrived. We found the bag and looked inside. Years of savings—thousands of dollars—were still there. Miguel and Andres literally jumped for joy and began praising God.
I saw Andres a couple of weeks ago and he asked, “Do you remember when we found the money”?
“I will never forget that day,” I answered.
Jim Phegley has served as a minister and church planter in the Northeast for 27 years. He is senior minister with Glen Cove (New York) Christian Church, a multiethnic congregation on Long Island’s north shore.