The Rev. Judy Hanlon with Linford Cunningham. Photo courtesy of another asylum seeker.
A phone call in 2008 changed his life and her church forever. Linford Cunningham, a gay man from Jamaica who came to the United States seeking asylum and a better life was linked with Pastor Judy Hanlon at Hadwen Park Congregational United Church of Christ in Worcester, Mass. Now Cunningham, the first UCC asylum seeker, is an American citizen, and Hanlon's church and the LGBT Asylum Support Task Force it created to help people like him, has saved the lives of 83 people from 15 countries.
"The church through its leadership and the wider ministry has done so much for me that words alone cannot express," said Cunningham. "To find myself in a country with no family, the church was there to fill that void. The church was able to rally around me and offered me so much support -- including financial support -- but most importantly emotional support to ensure that my path and that of many others towards citizenship and freedom was not as difficult."
Linford Cunningham swore his oath of allegiance to the United States of America on Thursday, June 11, in Lowell Memorial Auditorium, in Lowell, Mass., one of 690 people from 90 countries. The Rev. Judy Hanlon was there to cheer him on.
"When I walked into the citizenship hearing, and saw his smiling face ready to go in for the ceremony, and saw the red comma, the rainbow comma on his lapel, my knees almost buckled," said Hanlon. "That it means so much to him, and it represents everything we've done in the UCC to get us to this point. To see that, it's amazing. With all those other people present, he chose to make that statement, that God IS still speaking. It means a lot to him."
When Cunningham first met Hanlon in 2008, he needed help. He was faced with homelessness while filing for political asylum, with no work or stable source of financial support. Hadwen Park Congregational UCC (HPC) and the AIDS Project Worcester helped with cash assistance and food. But the intervention by the church also fed Cunningham spiritually.
"The church provided me with a place (the church building) to worship, and pray without fear that I will be subjected to being crucified or chastised for the simple fact that I am gay," said Cunningham. "My fellow church members greeted me with a welcoming smile, which often made my rough days and sleepless nights disappear. Pastor Judy has always been there as a tower of strength and never once said to me 'Linford, I cannot' -- and I think that is the kind of attitude that church leaders should seek to emulate."
"Linford's experience with churches in his home country of Jamaica had been very difficult. Most of the abuse is religious," Hanlon said. "Church leaders once prayed for him for eight hours so that the demon of homosexuality would leave him. I talked to him (and other asylum seekers) right away about the religious abuse. I share that there is one true God, that you are fearfully and wonderfully made, and every other message you've been given is wrong. This has never been said to them before. They hold pain, which is released when they learn that no matter who you are and where you are on life's journey you are welcome here. It's an amazing thing to watch. I've been changed completely."
And so has Cunningham. As housing manager at AIDS Project Worcester, he's paying it forward.
"I congratulate Linford on becoming a U.S. citizen," said the Rev Michael Schuenemeyer, UCC executive for health and wholeness advocacy. "He has demonstrated incredible resilience escaping a torturous ordeal in Jamaica and exhibited amazing leadership to raise awareness of LGBT human rights violations, working to help others who have also been in harms way."
The LGBT Asylum Support Task Force, a group of volunteers in Central Massachusetts, is always working to find ways to help more people, to assist in other success stories. Though the task force gets by with assistance from UCC churches and other faith groups, grants, foundations, people in the community, and by collaborating with Wooster Community Housing Resources, they have more housing than money. But they find a way to keep the project alive, because lives depend on it.
"We wanted to take some of our good energy and successes around LGBT issues locally and share with those whose lives are in jeopardy," said the Rev. Kate Stevens, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Ashfield, Mass. "We decided to set a goal of raising $7,000 in two months, so that we could support one asylum seeker. We have sent in the first $1,000 and are on our way to the next $1,000 soon. We hope other churches will be inspired to do the same. The LGBT Asylum Task Force works to provide housing, pro bono legal counsel and some spending money, with a modest $7,000 per person for a year. We are honored to assist in this effort."
"I always believed that God directed me to Worcester for a reason, and that was to ensure that I found solace and comfort in the knowledge that HPC and its pastor existed," said Cunningham. "Our journey towards success is [not] always paved with gold, or silver for that matter, but once it is lined with exceptionally caring individuals such as my church family at HPC, then the journey becomes less stressful and the miles seem like inches. By sharing my journey, it will surely help others to find happiness, freedom and love within the borders of the U.S."