A Song of Grace: Pastor Judy on saving the lives of LGBTQ asylum seekers – Part 1

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Pastor Judy Hanlon was waiting at Peppercorns when I arrived a minute behind schedule. She cut off my profuse apologies with a beaming smile and a quick assurance that she is generally always late. Our conversation began on an unusual note with her questioning me, the interviewer, on my story. Within minutes I felt like we had known each other for years. As our food arrived, we decided to change tracks. She asked me, “So, what do you want from me?” I said that I wanted to know her story. What followed was one of the most remarkable accounts I have ever heard.

I was born in Indiana, the second child of seven. My father was a Pentecostal minister, so the church was a big part of my childhood. Playing piano, singing with my family, and being in Sunday school – I loved it. But growing up, I always struggled with ethics. One example: my father would always preach that it’s a sin to work on Sundays. I remember this one time we were getting food at a restaurant after church and Margaret, our waitress, served up my cheeseburger. The little girl in me loved her dearly, so I took this all in and burst into tears. When my parents asked me what was wrong I told them through my sobs, ‘Margaret is going to hell because she had to make me a cheeseburger.’ My parents couldn’t understand what was wrong—they couldn’t connect what they preached at the pulpit with the moment.

I remember this teacher I had in 7th grade who was teaching us critical thinking. We would come up with a hypothesis and try to defend it, all those things. So I raised my hand and volunteered my theory ‘All black people are dirty.’ My teacher wrote it down and then asked me to justify it. So I said ‘Because my father says so.’ He countered it by saying that it’s an opinion. I then said that the Bible says so, to which he said that the Bible is a translation. He challenged each and every answer I gave. I travelled to Gary, Indiana, saw all the African Americans living in slums, and tried to use that as proof. This guy was such a good teacher, he checked with the city authorities and found out that all of the slums were owned by White Americans. He then asked me if it was fair to say that all white people are slumlords. My 7th grade mind was forced to dig deeper. This was how I began to really look at everything around me and question right and wrong.

After leaving my job of 25 years at Verizon with $3,000 to study anything at all, I began to wonder what I wanted to do in life. I knew I was deeply interested in theology, philosophy and sociology. This realization led me to seminary, where I studied and got the opportunity to preach at churches. It was about then that I was made an offer to record some music I had written and to produce an album. I had just got home from a meeting with some musicians in New York, and I checked my answering machine and heard the recording from Hadwen Park Church in Worcester asking to meet with me about becoming their pastor. I was convinced that I was the next big Christian music hit, so I wasn’t too inclined to say yes. However, I did. And for your information, they never called me back about my music!judy3

Looking back, I know I made the absolute right choice. I love the church, I love the congregation, and the United Church of Christ provides an ethos where questioning is honored and dissent is expected. We are a progressive denomination—we leave our doors open to all. The church is interested in the stranger at the gate… in celebrating every faith, tradition, gender identity, sexual orientation, race and all the diversity in our world. I pray with Muslims, and I leave out the part about Jesus and say Allah instead; the God spirit exists and we share in that moment. I became the senior minister of the church in 2000 and a few years later, we openly declared for marriage equality. We seek justice and righteousness, which isn’t glorifying oneself and condemning others. If we have rights that others don’t, we work toward change. When my partner Glenn and I were considering marriage, I preached from the pulpit that if my gay congregation members didn’t have the right to marry that I wouldn’t exercise my right to it either. I marched for equal marriage in Boston and was a part of the ‘Equal Marriage: The Freedom to Marry Coalition in Massachusetts.’ I remember marching against lines and lines of Catholic buses, all there to protest our cause. I was called the ‘daughter of perdition!’ (She laughs it off, but there’s no mistaking the proud gleam in her eyes). I remember thinking that they looked so angry and bitter, while our side of the fence had so much joy. We were all smiling and laughing. I was singing all I could. (Here, she breaks into a spirited rendition of “Jesus Loves Me,” complete with snapping fingers and arms waving in the air). I was invited to speak on a panel before the legislature at the State House, and the speaker before me said that he used to be gay but had changed with God’s help. He questioned marriage equality by asking ‘what next, two men and a woman, two women and a man, two men and an elephant?’ which I found to be so terribly demeaning. So in my speech I spoke of how I counsel gay couples the same way that I counsel anyone else, to love one another and bring out the best in each other. I ended by saying ‘And never in my life have I had to counsel an elephant!’

It was in 2007 that my work with the LGBTQ Task Force began. We had a young gay man, Marcus*, who fled Jamaica and came to America seeking asylum. Many of our asylum seekers imagine America to be a promised land, where everyone accepts and welcomes minority, homosexual immigrants. It was once he came here that he realized that life would be no easier, even though freedom was worth it all in the end. Asylum seekers have enormous challenges that they need to overcome. They arrive at our shores after going through incredible trauma, with no protected legal status. They don’t have access to free legal advice and they are not allowed to work by law. Generally immigrants coming to America find refuge in the communities of people from their home country, yet LGBTQ asylum seekers cannot do that as they would face the same cultural stigma and abuse from which they fled. So, they are often homeless. After finding an attorney and finally getting a hearing to plead their case, which can take years, they must prove in courts that they are gay! These are people who have been terrified by their family, friends and neighbors so deep into the closet that they haven’t come to terms with their sexuality themselves! It was these problems that Marcus dealt with, which led him to believe his religious past that told him he was an abomination, hated by God. In his church in Jamaica, he had been singled out as a sinner by the minister and had been surrounded and prayed on by the entire congregation. His attorney called me for help, and I knew that I had to do something. I sat down with him and discussed all the persecution he had experienced and told him that they were wrong. We went through the scriptures and I tried to explain that homosexuality is not condemned in any way. Rather, the scriptures frown upon immoral sexual behavior, which anyone, gay or straight, could get up to. The cataclysmic moment occurred in the middle of a service, when he got up to the altar, curled up in a ball and began sobbing in pure primal anguish. The entire congregation watched in shocked sympathy, but one man – a big, straight teddy bear of a man – strode up to the altar and cradled him in his arms. I will never forget that moment. Everyone watched this transformative scene through their tears. That was when Marcus reconnected with a diverse and loving God, through the comfort and acceptance of the community.

…to be continued in Part II

Themal Ellawala

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of individuals

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