O’Neill UMC pastor says helping displaced refugees is a humanitarian, not political, issue

David Burke


Brian Loy, pastor of O'Neill United Methodist Church, prepares to haul donations from an Omaha church. Photos by David Burke


'We just keep loving the people'

O’Neill UMC pastor says helping displaced refugees is a humanitarian, not political issue 

When Brian Loy was appointed pastor of O’Neill United Methodist Church last November, he was no stranger to the Nebraska community. 

His father, the Rev. Glenn Loy, was pastor of the church from 1976 to 1983, during which time Brian went through junior high and high school. 

In giving Brian Loy the rare mid-church year appointment, he was told the church was in danger of closing. Church attendance was as low as 47. Within months, the count was as high as 130, averaging more than 70 before summer vacation and its typical absences. 

Brian Loy and Vikki O'Hara from Omaha Faith Westwood UMC, carry items into the church.

But the events of Aug. 8 – when a raid resulted in the arrests of the accused leader of a scheme that involved hiring immigrants who worked 70-hour weeks for less than minimum wage and stranded more than 100 workers in the north central Nebraska community – left Loy equally proud of his church and disappointed in the community he’d called home. 

“It’s a whole different face,” Loy says of the town of 3,600. “The ones who carried it before seem to be standing in the back, and they won’t step forward like they did. It saddens me.” 

On a recent Thursday, O’Neill UMC was overrun with activity, with immigrant families arriving for food and other necessities, legal assistance being provided via an interpreter, and Loy and several others in his church negotiating with grocery stores and milk plants to obtain donations for the stranded families. 

Loy, who said he’s lost friends and is shunned by acquaintances when he’s downtown and literally embraced by the immigrant families, says he tries to “stay focused on the humanitarian side.”  

“I don’t want to get caught up in the political side. I don’t want the Methodist Church to do that,” he said. “So we just keep loving the people and keep providing for them.” 


Call to action 

When the raid happened, Loy was in Denver finishing his course of study at Iliff School of Theology. His father, a retired part-time pastor at nearby Elgin, Nebraska, was called in when leaders in the Elkhorn Valley District heard about the raid. 

“He was very moved by the immediate initial response,” Brian Loy said. “They were very impressed with the mobility of the church. The ladies were already preparing food to feed them, and they were looking at bedding and housing.” 

That Sunday, following worship services, members were urged to stay for questions regarding the church’s new position as a refuge for the immigrants. The Rev. Cindy Karges, superintendent for the Gateway and Great West districts, represented the Great Plains Conference.  

Church attendance at O'Neill UMC has grown in Loy's first few months as pastor.

Leaders of the church’s various boards and organizations made the decision to continue the efforts it had started a few days earlier. 

“They unanimously voted to stay in this for the long haul,” Loy said. 

Sadly, Loy said, he is not seeing that kind of cooperation from the other 13 churches in the community, aside from the predominately Spanish-speaking congregation Iglesia Evangelica Bethania. 

“The Methodist Church has helped us so much. The pastor deserves our appreciation,” said its leader, Tomas Garcia. “They have given hope to people.” 

Loy said he wishes his church could share the responsibility with others in town, but he’s not finding willing partners. 

“I’ll be extremely candid and honest with you. I’m extremely disappointed in our community,” he said. “The religious community here has not risen like I thought it would rise.” 

The raid brought a division to the community that is reflected in its churches, Loy said. 

“I think they’re making a statement,” he said. “If you would have asked me where in the world I would have wanted to be when this came down as a pastor, I’d say O’Neill.” 

O'Neill UMC is seeking temporary use of a 15-passenger van to take workers to immigration appointments in Omaha and Grand Island, and their children to school. If you can help, call 402-336-1883 or contact Pastor Brian Loy at bloy@greatplainsumc.org.

Loy said he has only heard one voice of dissent in his congregation – a woman who had been attending for 50-plus years, who said it had “overstepped its boundaries as a church” and was leaving the congregation. “That was sad,” he said. 

Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. thanked O’Neill UMC for its witness for Christ amid difficult circumstances. 

“My heart is filled with joy at the compassionate and merciful actions taken by our sisters and brothers of O’Neill United Methodist Church toward the undocumented immigrants in their community,” Bishop Saenz said. “Pastor Loy and the congregation are responding and engaging their Latino neighbors in a way that faithful to the saving, healing, and freeing gospel of Jesus Christ and our United Methodist witness in the world. 

“As United Methodists, we are a people born of the Spirit – a people of faith, hope and love,” the bishop continued. “To have compassion and care for the stranger is a Christian obligation and desire rooted in our new nature as disciples of Christ born of the Spirit.”  

Bishop Saenz said ministry sometimes leads people into unimaginable and even undesirable situations. 

“In those moments, we must choose how we will respond in a way that is faithful to Christ and the Greatest Commandment to love our neighbor knowing that there will be a cost to us personally and as a community of faith,” Bishop Saenz said. “Our courage to take an unpopular stand and accompany others on an undesirable road comes from the Lord, who leads us through valleys for His name’s sake.”   


Learning about immigration 

The raid, Loy said, has given himself and others in his church a crash course in immigration.  

“There’s a lot you don’t know,” he said. “There’s a lot of ignorance when it comes to the immigration issue, and a lot of fallacies out there that people are hanging onto that aren’t true.” 

A sign greets visitors to the church.

He assumed that immigrants were eligible for welfare, which they are not. Those who want to become citizens have to show up at court times that are sometimes in the wee hours of Sunday mornings in Omaha, about 200 miles away. 

“They show up, and there’s a court person there who documents they were there, and they’re sent back home,” he said. “I’ve been there. It’s a nightmare.” 

Those who don’t show up, however, are in danger of being deported. 

“You can understand the frustration of jumping through hoop after hoop after hoop,” he said. “We’ve got people here who have been in the system for 20 years and are still waiting on hearings to become citizens. That’s just asinine in the country we have. I’m not defending them not going through the court hearing, but I get it.” 

Loy said it has given him new appreciation for the perseverance that the immigrants go through to try to become American citizens. 

“I didn’t understand any of this until I got in the middle of it,” he said. “I thought, man, what a dehumanizing thing we’re doing.” 


Community appreciation 

Though it may seem that not many people appreciate the O’Neill church’s efforts, its work has been noticed by some members of the community. 

“They’ve been amazing,” said Amy Shane, superintendent of O’Neill schools. “They’ve opened their arms and their hearts to people in this community who have really needed them in their time of need. I can’t say enough good things about the United Methodist Church here, as well as Pastor Brian. It’s overwhelming, above and beyond.” 

A variety of donations were made to the church.

Shane said she was afraid that there might be a drop in the school population after some families left the area following the raids. But the 12-student drop in attendance on the first day was cut in half within the first week of school. 

She said she has seen division in the community. 

“There are split opinions about the current situation,” she said. “Some folks say that if they were here illegally, and they knew this could happen to them, they wouldn’t feel sorry for them. There’s a whole group of people I surround myself with who say ‘yes, but they were looking for a better life for their families, and they were innocent in the illegal things that were going on over and above being here.’ 

“The people in the community are feeling love from people like Brian and the church that they’re going to try and ride it out,” Shane added. “I was afraid they’d leave.” 


Support from Omaha 

Loy said O’Neill UMC has received assistance from outside the area, particularly Grand Island (two hours to the south) and Omaha (3½ hours to the east). 

Vikki O’Hara, director of caring ministries at Faith Westwood UMC in Omaha, made her second trip to O’Neill in three weeks. Her trunk and back seat were packed with bags of rice, cans of black beans and pinto beans, tortillas and fresh groceries from a stop at a store close to O’Neill. 

Loy hugs volunteer Judy Varner from Omaha after her delivery.

O’Neill has already been the recipient of two mission offerings.  

“We’re planning to bring a vanload every week,” she said. 

The church is using money from its disaster funds to help the immigrants. 

“We feel like this is a disaster for the families affected and for the community,” O’Hara said. “We’re in a good position to help.” 

O’Hara said her congregation in Omaha had no problem reaching out hundreds of miles away to help those in O’Neill. 

“Omaha is one of our mission fields,” she said. “This is another one for us right now, because there is a need.” 

That same day, Judy Varner and her husband, David Silchman, arrived with a van full of food and supplies donated by members of Countryside Community Church, a United Church of Christ congregation (“We aren’t even Methodist!,” Varner adds) for the second straight week. 

“These people need our help,” she said. “We are completely blown away by the response of this church and Pastor Loy. He needs our help, and our church is very socially minded. This is a no-brainer for us.” 

Varner is the chair of the church’s O’Neill Committee. 

“We’re going to keep coming,” she said. “Our goal is to make it a sustainable effort – how can we help as long as these folks are in this horrible predicament?” 


Makeshift store 

Sunday school classrooms and offices in the church basement have turned into a makeshift store for the refugees, with donated food items neatly organized onto shelves taking up half the area, and donated clothes, household goods and personal grooming items in the other. Soap, shampoo, toothpaste and other items are in high demand, organizers say. 

Bekah Gartner gives a tour of the free market in the basement of the church.

The store is organized by Bekah Gartner, a local professional photographer who wanted to do something for those in need. 

“Each week we’ve had some generous, awesome donors locally and all around the state who have been giving so much,” she said. “We get phone calls all the time from people asking how they can help.” 

After the first week, Gartner said, the impetus of the store changed. 

“Our first week we were boxing things, and the second week I wanted people to be able to shop on their own,” she said. “They can have a little bit of control. It’s hard for them right now, and to be able to do something like get your own groceries rather than going through an assembly line and have someone give you a box.” 

Loy, she said, helped construct shelves to turn the area into more of a market atmosphere. 

“I got some insight from the community into the food they enjoyed and what they wanted to eat,” she said. “It’s satisfying to be self-sufficient, and being able to shop for themselves gives them that opportunity.” 

Although not a member of the church, Gartner said she was grateful for what its members have done, which prompted her to get involved. 

“I just care a lot about human beings. I feel like I’m fairly vocal about it through people I know. When this is happening in my back yard, I couldn’t stand to not do something,” she said. “I don’t know any legal anything, I’m not even bilingual. But I can organize this. I can help.” 


Legal assistance 

Gladys Godinez, on the other hand, is both bilingual and has a knowledge of the law. 

Gladys Godinez gives assistance to a refugee family.

A community organizer with the Lexington-based Center for Rural Affairs, Godinez meets with a steady stream of families, mostly from Guatemala, who are seeking assistance. 

“The biggest challenge in general is that they were just here to work and raise a family and get an education and find their American dream as much as possible,” she said. 

“They wish it wouldn’t have happened,” Godinez said of the raid. “They wish they had the ability to continue working. They don’t want to stay at home and not do anything. They have that fear of being detained again or going to court with a deportation order. “ 

Following the raid, families were allowed to return to their housing, where they reportedly had paid rent to the accused ringleader of their employment in area farms and businesses. 

Families are frustrated by the situation, Godinez said, but don’t know what their options are. 

“There is no short-term process and there is no citizenship line that anybody can get on,” she said. “We’re just trying to do our best to respond to the crisis that happened in O’Neill and the surrounding community.” 

Godinez said a boost to the immigrant community would be mental-health counseling. 

“We do know that they need it,” she said. “They definitely share their feelings with me, but they need some one-on-one conversations with a therapist, a bilingual volunteer who could talk to the community affected.” 


Long road 

At age 55, Brian Loy took a long road to becoming a pastor. 

He was an officer in the O’Neill Police Department after graduating high school, and has worked in construction, owning his own trucking company and, most recently, was making big money remodeling homes throughout the country. 

Brian Loy and Bekah Gartner survey the donations at the church.

Sensing his life was getting out of control, he pulled his car into a countryside church in North Carolina and gave his life to Christ. He called his wife to tell her of his decision to become a pastor and came home to find his belongings stacked on the front lawn. He lived out of his car for four months while first attending Oklahoma Wesleyan University. 

After some convincing by Great Plains leaders, he changed his affiliation from the Wesleyan Church to United Methodist and accepted the position in his former hometown. 

“I’m a stubborn man. I do not take no (for an answer) very well, especially if I know I’m right,” he said of his decisions in the past month. “If it costs me my job, it costs me my job.” 

He takes the loss of friends and support in stride. 

“The further I get into ministry, the more and more I understand where it says the gate is narrow, the road is tough, the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few,” he said. 

“I’m not ashamed of what we’re doing,” he added. “I think we’re doing God’s work. I think we’re being the hands and feet of Jesus in a very hurting economy.  

“My only regret is that we can’t do enough.” 


David Burke, communications content specialist, can be contacted at dburke@greatplainsumc.org

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