A Song of Grace: Pastor Judy on saving the lives of LGBTQ asylum seekers – Part 2

Pastor Judy Hanlon and I met up at Peppercorns to discuss her work as a minister and a LGBTQ+ advocate. There was a moment of silence as our food arrived. We both took a moment to breathe in the aroma and dig into our meal, but she resumed our conversation soon afterwards.

“My work with the LGBTQ Asylum started after this experience with helping Marcus*. Our work gained momentum from this point. What started off as a church initiative soon became financially unsustainable—we had so many needing help. So we decided to expand it to a community organization and named it the LGBT Asylum Support Task Force (www.lgbtasylum.org). We work to provide asylum seekers to housing, food, clothing, transportation and support systems. My work is mostly with helping these people overcome the wounds of religious persecution. These are hurts that aren’t healed by any federal or state department, and rightfully so due to the separation of church and state. But that means that someone has to try to fill that void, and it is my passion to celebrate their whole identity and preach a loving message against the thousands of hate-filled religious systems.

“I won’t lie, it is hard work. Our work has gained a lot of attention, and we are flooded with appeals for help but, sadly, not the same level of financial support. Having to refuse people help, knowing what they’re being condemned to is beyond horrifying—that’s what keeps me up at night. There was a time when all the stories—account after account of torture, rape and sheer cruelty—weighed me down. I wondered, what is the point of what I do? How can I make it all right? I felt guilty for enjoying life when all around the world, people were losing everything that they had. One particular story haunted me. This girl from Uganda, Joan*, grew up with her father because her mother died during childbirth. The two of them were inseparable. Although beating children is common in Uganda, her father never once laid a finger on her. The girl went to an all-girls boarding school, which is when she realized that she was attracted to women. When she reached a marriageable age, her father began to arrange suitors to visit so that she could marry and be provided for in his old age. She turned them down one after the other on various pretexts, ‘till finally she sat him down and told him that she was a lesbian. That day he beat her bloody, up and down the entire house. When the blows finally stopped she crawled into bed, but it wasn’t over. Her door was left open in the night, and three men came in to gang rape her. Corrective rape is accepted and common in a shocking number of countries. They knocked her teeth into her mouth and broke her leg, yet she still found the strength to crawl out and get to her grandmother’s house. It was there that she gave birth to her child, conceived during that night of torture. Although she tried to find a job, her father would tell all her employers that she was a lesbian, hoping to reform her in some way. And then her grandmother died, which convinced her to hand her child over to her father in hope that he would care for it. She went to Egypt as a domestic worker and served a family faithfully for four years until they all traveled to California, which is when she realized this was her chance to escape. She did. Armed with the $300 she had saved, she went to the station and boarded a bus to Boston. This is why I believe in a higher power, for this girl had no idea what or where Boston is, but decided unknowingly to come so close to us, one of the few if not the only groups doing such work in America. In Boston, she couch surfed from one house to another till she came to Worcester, and to our doorstep. Today, she is in regular contact with her child, has a job and a car, and is working to bring her little boy and her partner from Uganda to the USA. I pray with her frequently and I am amazed by her one wish, which is to find the strength to forgive her father.


“So, you see how it could take a toll on you? But I’ve learned to focus on each day and each act. That’s what keeps you sane. And I understand that I am truly blessed. I learn so much about the world and its people from this work. On our way to church on Sunday morning, my grandkids and I usually pick up some of the asylum seekers/parishioners. This has become so normal for the kids. They ask these folk to talk in local dialects of Zambia and Jamaica, and they listen to the happy chatter with glee. My grandson once asked me why our gay friends had to leave their country. I tried to explain to him that in some countries there are presidents who set rules that put gay people in prison. The next time all of our asylum seekers met up at my house to talk about their dreams and goals in life, my grandson piped in that he wants to be the President of the United States and put all the other presidents who don’t like gay people in prison. When I explained to him that he would be doing exactly what those presidents have done to gay people, he gave it some thought and said that he would release them after three days, give them a talking to and a second chance! The rest of the group just watched and cried. That is what I’m thankful for, that my grandkids won’t grow up to be ignorant and homophobic, or say ‘learn our language’ or ‘leave our country.’

“These asylum seekers are incredibly grateful for our work, yet they have a tough time adjusting to the circumstances. You see, it’s the people with money and resources who can flee their countries and travel to the U.S. We have doctors and lawyers selling all of their belongings and arriving at our doorstep. It’s quite a transition, going from those circumstances to eating at a food pantry or a soup kitchen, or juggling three jobs a day looking after the elderly. I am honored to see their determination. Everyone brings their gifts to our congregation. People sing, play music, read Scriptures and even preach. One of them, Vanessa*, a beautiful transgendered woman, performs the most graceful sign language in our services… it’s like a dance. They challenge our most deep-rooted prejudices. Our community is all the more richer thanks to them.

“One of the most difficult learning curves for many of our immigrants is adapting to the racism that is American. We have even experienced racism in the LGBTQ+ community. We visited the Northampton Pride Parade one time, wearing paper bags over our heads to symbolize how others in the world have to hide their identities. Yet, Vanessa would have none of that. She decided to enjoy the celebration in her rather revealing outfit, as this is something she never got to experience at home. We were catcalled! It was by a handful, but it was appalling. After the parade was over a lesbian couple walked by us, and I asked them if they wanted a pamphlet. One of them stopped and simply said, ‘Go home.’ I tried to explain what our organization was but she kept saying ‘Go home’ with several choice expletives added in for good measure. As they walked away I called out and said, ‘Somebody stuck up for you one day’ and she turned around and gestured rudely at me. And the only explanation I could come up with was that all of us, with the exception of me, were black! The LGBTQ+ community is very vocal when it comes to the rights of Americans and contribute to causes like marriage equality, but when it comes to helping ‘the other’, there’s still a great deal of racism in the picture. Don’t get me wrong, they are a huge supporter of our work, but the community isn’t as inclusive as we would like to think it is. I pray for the day when this changes, and all Americans become more accepting.

“But at the end of the day, I think the LGBTQ+ community is our biggest hope. We humans, we draw these arbitrary lines in the sand, by gender, race, color, sexuality. Over time it gets worse and worse. It takes communities like LGBTQ+ to blur those lines and bring us closer to becoming a collective whole. I would like to think that things would get better with time. That’s what gives me, all of us, the hope to march on.”


For more information, visit www.lgbtasylum.org. To help us share this story, copy the link and post on social media.


Themal Ellawala


*Names have been changed to protect the identity of individuals




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