Pastor Isabel Marquez opens the door to asylum seekers at OLUMC (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

Hundreds of immigrants each week pass through the Oak Lawn church on their way to a new life

DAVID TAFFET | Senior Staff Writer

A Columbian couple had time to spare before their flight from Love Field. So Dorothy, the volunteer who was taking them from Oak Lawn United Methodist Church to the airport, stopped off with the two men at JR.’s. She said their eyes lit up with delight when she explained this was a gay bar. In their home country, they had never seen anything like it before.

Then she pointed out other gay bars on the block as well as Sue Ellen’s, the lesbian bar right next door. After their lives had been threatened because of their sexual orientation in Columbia, the asylum-seekers finally understood they were going to be safe in the U.S.
Pastor Isabel Marquez said she loves when people coming through the church begin to feel human again.

Oak Lawn UMC began its refugee program before the pandemic. They received about 175 people when Title 42 closed the border for health reasons. The program started up again in May 2022.

Through FEMA, the border patrol and NGOs that operate along the border, people who have applied for asylum and are still at detention centers are bused to places like Oak Lawn UMC. The church provides these refugees with food, clean clothes and a place to wash during the 12 hours or less they are at the church. Each has family or a sponsor to contact to arrange transportation to their final destination. Most will be traveling out of Texas.

Marquez described those days when they receive immigrants as controlled chaos. She said what she wants those who’ve arrived at the church to know is, “This is a safe place for everyone.”

Once inside, families are sent together to one room, single men to another and single women to a third. They’re all given something to eat, and translators help them contact family and book flights or buy bus tickets. In most cases, family knows they’re coming, but not exactly when they are coming.

There’s a clothing bank for everyone to use so they can change into something clean for travel. Marquez said when they put on new clothes, she loves to see the laughter and joy as compliments fly among them. But the top accessory people want is shoe laces. When admitted to detention centers along the border, shoe laces are confiscated to prevent people from doing harm to themselves or others.

Marquez said her church has built a reputation of trust: “When they’re boarding the buses, they hope they’re sent to Oak Lawn,” she said, because “our reputation is we’ll reunite you with family.”

Because of over-crowding at the detention centers, some asylum-seekers are simply bused to a local airport or bus station and dumped without assistance. Marquez said some people arrive at the church still covered in mud, and some get off the bus without shoes.

“They don’t walk out of this building the same as when they walked in,” she said.

When they arrive, she said, “they cry, they clap.” No matter what language they’re speaking, they say some version of “we made it.”

“It’s beautiful to see that,” Marquez said. “They’re another person when they walk out of here.”

She’d like to make things even better for those coming through the church. Although they have a place for people to wash, she’d love to have a shower truck for people to use.

Among the people who volunteer are translators. Previously, many of the buses were loaded with people who all spoke one language. But recently, buses have been filled with people speaking a variety of languages.

The top countries people are from are China, Egypt, Turkey, Nepal and Russia, Marquez said, as well as a variety of places around Latin America. The Chinese are escaping harsh new laws that have been imposed over the last few years. Russians are escaping conscription to fight in Ukraine. Ukrainians, who Marquez said she saw quite a few of at the beginning of the program, are escaping the war.

One country very few of the asylum-seekers are from is Mexico. Latin Americans seeking asylum are mainly from Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

And LGBTQ arrivals are from a wide variety of countries that discriminate against them.

But with people coming from various countries, translators are needed for a wide variety of languages. The community has responded well, although they’ve welcomed people whose indigenous language isn’t included in universal translators.

Once travel arrangements are made, volunteers transport people to the airport and, working with TSA, often get gate passes to make sure people get on the right flights.

For the last year and a half, five or six full buses a week have arrived at Oak Lawn UMC, yet the detention centers are as crowded as ever.

Marquez said other churches and mosques help with clothing drives and food costs as well as providing assistance the days buses arrive. One church — Midway Hills Christian Church — has been particularly helpful, which is not surprising since Midway Hills is where Dallas PFLAG originated, and it was the first church in Dallas to be fully integrated during the Civil Rights era.

People are coming to this country because they have no choice, each person at Oak Lawn UMC said. While the stories they told were mostly of reunification with families across this country, they’ve heard heartbreaking stories as well about crossing seven countries on foot, seeking a new life.

One woman told a volunteer that as she walked across the jungle in Central America, her daughter was bitten by a snake. The girl died and the mother had to bury her in the jungle before continuing her journey on foot. n

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