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How a church and a nonprofit are welcoming migrants to Chicago — starting with a Thanksgiving meal

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A former gender violence attorney, a manager at a fast-food restaurant, a police officer and other migrant men joined churchgoers around tables in a basement Wednesday night.

For most of these migrants, it’s their first time having a Thanksgiving meal.

After a bilingual service, New Life Community Church in Little Village hosted a holiday dinner for the congregation and a group of about 10 migrant men — mostly asylum-seekers from Venezuela — from two different shelters in the city.

“I forgot to say thanks to God for the turkey since I’ve never eaten turkey before. I’ve had sliced turkey, but a whole turkey, like this? No,” Jose Luis Cordero Arismendi, 49, said in Spanish between chuckles.

He was wearing a brown velvet suit for the special dinner, during which lively conversation abounded and children ran around.

New Life Community Church and its nonprofit New Life Centers have found, in food, a tool for community-building. This is no surprise, really, given the experience New Life Centers has working on an extensive food distribution operation that feeds thousands weekly in Chicagoland. The nonprofit also offers violence prevention services to the Little Village community, including street outreach, after-school care, tutoring and sports opportunities.

New Life Centers Executive Director Matt DeMateo said the nonprofit picks up migrant families originally from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Colombia that are now living on the South and West Sides of the city and brings them together on Sundays for a church service in Spanish and for a meal afterward.

One time, a lady brought a huge bowl of pozole, a Mexican soup, DeMateo said. It was enough to feed over 150 people.

“For us, it’s not about the food. The food is the hook. The food is the entryway, kind of the door,” he said. “But for us, it’s about the relationships and connecting them to community.”

Sometimes after Sunday service, Pastor Chris Ophus will notice migrants leave to have lunch with local families, some of whom are Hispanic or Latino. The migrants are able to connect with one another and with these families, he said, over similar experiences of coming to the United States in hopes of a better life.

“What’s cool is, because there’s so many people who are at different points during the immigrant story: people who came 20 years ago and whose kids are going to college right now; people who are pretty recent, but have got themselves settled; and other people who just got here,” Ophus said. “I think we’re able to give hope to the people who are coming.”

Sitting at a table with a handful of fellow migrants on Wednesday, Cordero Arismendi shared a bit about his life. He was a lawyer back in Venezuela before he moved to Colombia in 2014. This year, he migrated to the United States, crossing seven country borders and arriving in Chicago on a bus from Texas two months ago.

He survived disease-carrying mosquitoes, contaminated drinking water, an armed robbery, the heat and scorching sun, and many other challenges on his way north.

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“Chicago is the city that opened its doors to me — and it’s the city I don’t want to leave,” he said.

Cordero Arismendi said he had a lot to be grateful for: He had just learned Loyola University would validate his law degree if he fulfills certain requisites, such as achieving a certain level of English proficiency.

The Venezuelan men at the table next to Cordero Arismendi’s included a former cop, a mechanic and a machine operator. Some of them wanted to settle down in Chicago, some wanted to return home eventually. But they all had one thing in common: They had come to the United States in hopes of doing honest work.

“I like the city,” said Jhean Carlos Paez, 25, a Venezuelan who initially moved to Colombia, where he was a manager at a joint that sold hamburgers and hot dogs. He said he wants to stay in Chicago and hopes to study business administration. “I come with that goal of bettering myself,” he added in Spanish.

At the end of the dinner, Pastor Francisco “Paco” Amador led a prayer with the group of men, asking God to help them make Chicago a better place.

“These are people that are displaced, that are hurting … They’ve been put through a lot, but they’re driven for a better life,” Mark Jobe, founding pastor of New Life Community Church and president of the Moody Bible Institute, had told the Tribune. “These are people that are really just trying to survive.”

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