For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (Matthew 25:25-36)
Farouk - a gay man recently escaped from Uganda where being ‘out’ can mean losing your family, violence, torture, imprisonment, and worse – showed up at the door of Hadwen Park Congregational Church, UCC in Worcester one day when the church office was closed. This was the address he’d been given while still in Uganda, with assurances he would find help and safety there. Not knowing what else to do, he knocked on the neighbor’s door. The neighbor, who knew about the church’s LGBT Asylum Task Force ministry, invited this stranger in, fed him, and allowed him to spend the night. The next morning he was taken in by Hadwen Park church where he was given a place to live, food, friendship.
“I was a stranger and you invited me in…”
As a member of the LGBT Asylum Task Force - and Hadwen Park church - I am dedicated to the group of 25 asylum seekers currently with us who are legally unable to work until receiving a permit and social security number, a process which takes about a year. In the meantime, we supply housing, food, a phone, a stipend, and legal and medical assistance to these seekers from the 70+ countries where it is illegal and dangerous to be LGBT. Arguably as important, the church offers spiritual support and welcome, something most of these men and women have not experienced in a church setting before, though many have a deep-seated faith.
One of the things I find most satisfying in my work for the Massachusetts Conference is the opportunity to further live into this work by keeping our congregations, pastors and lay people informed about justice issues, shared through a UCC lens - in particular, concerns for refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrant families.
The Massachusetts Conference Immigration, Refugee and Asylum Task Team works with congregations concerned about refugee justice, offering resources and connections to organizations that facilitate sanctuary. I am blessed to support this dedicated group by maintaining their web pages, publishing blogs, sending updates through our monthly justice and witness newsletter (Ever Flowing Streams), and helping to launch the Conference’s new Sanctuary Churches Fund. This fund, co-organized by the task team and Jonathan New, Associate Conference Minister for Stewardship and Church Finance, is solely supported by donations from individuals and churches (you can donate here); 100% is given to sanctuary churches currently housing a refugee, to help pay expenses related to housing and caring for that person and their family.
There are at least four Level 1 UCC sanctuary churches in Massachusetts, poised to take in a refugee in danger of deportment at a moment’s notice; a dozen other congregations are prepared to offer companionship, rides to church for the families, and other volunteer help to refugees in sanctuary. First Congregational Church, UCC in Amherst, MA is presently housing Lucio Perez, a father of four from Guatemala who has lived in the U.S. for over 20 years. South Congregational Church of Springfield, MA hosted a Peruvian woman named Gisella and her family until their joyful release earlier this year.
In these times of hostility toward the ‘other’, we can expect further attacks on refugee rights and dignity and an increase in ICE raids. Not every church is able or willing to provide sanctuary for a refugee, or support for asylum seekers escaping violence in their home countries and struggling to survive here.
Not everyone would feel comfortable inviting in a frightened African stranger who showed up on their doorstep.
But some of us can offer a ride, or help finding a job, or furnishings for an apartment. Many of us can send a much-needed donation in support.
And all of us can pray.
“I was a stranger, and you invited me in…”
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