Dee and Eric are part of a small UCC congregation in Las Vegas. As members of the 18-year-old Northwest Community UCC, they are deeply committed to showing love of neighbor through social justice ministries. So when the opportunity arose to sponsor a transgender refugee, they answered the call.
"We responded as members of Northwest Community Church UCC, turning no one away and loving everybody as Jesus truly loves," said Dee. "We saw terrified people and wanted to help in a tangible way. We envisioned the migrants with the face of Christ at the door of our nation. We saw families separated. We could not turn away from our calling — as Christians and as compassionate beings of the human race — to open our arms to a stranger in need and trust that God will continue to protect and provide for us as we follow the teachings of love."
On Oct. 24, Dee and Eric, accompanied by Northwest's pastor the Rev. Thea Racelis, welcomed Renata into their hearts and home. Since that time, Renata has been living with Dee and Eric, and the church community has been involved in supporting their sponsorship.
Northwest Community's "role is to help as needed," said Racelis. "We are helping to be part of their community. We are also committed to helping with logistical things like giving them rides, providing interpreting, and other services."
Although there is a communication gap — Renata is from Mexico and speaks Spanish — the housing arrangement is working. With the help of translation phone apps and community members who are bilingual, making sure Renata's needs are met is getting easier.
"It is Renata's needs that have steered our path," said Dee. "Although we speak different languages, she seems to be relaxing and letting the comforts of home replace the trauma of a painful journey. She tells us she is grateful for a place of peace and rest."
Renata's room at Dee and Eric's is set up college dorm style with a small microwave, refrigerator, TV and radio. It also includes maps of the world and of Nevada. "We have given her the same respect of privacy and space you would any roommate," Dee added. "A phone with unlimited data to contact her family was our first priority."
Racelis said that the ministry of support for Renata is helping the young congregation grow in unexpected ways. "Even though we are a smaller congregation and we are — like most churches — struggling financially, we are growing in discipleship," said Racelis. "This new relationship is helping us to do ministry that is aligned with our core beliefs and our commitment to social justice."
Fernanda, another transgender asylum seeker living with a local family, attends Northwest Community Church. She believes churches can play an important role in helping asylum seekers. “A lot of girls come here and have no support,” she noted. “They have a hard time, they are seen as outsiders." Fernanda said she has felt welcome in the church and even though she doesn't speak much English, she feels at home. Church members have accompanied her to important appointments and continue to be a trusted source of support.
"We hope that sharing some of the story around trans refugees will help other churches to feel empowered and compelled to help, as we know that the group has been demonized in the media," Racelis said. She noted that Central American caravan which has made its way to the Mexican Border with the United States included a sizable group of LGBT refugees seeking safety.
Ireri Bravo is a volunteer for Stand Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and also serves on Diversidad Sin Fronteras, a group working specifically to address the human rights concerns of LGBTQ migrants. She spoke at Northwest Community Church to urge members to consider how they can contribute to the efforts to support asylum seekers, people who "fleeing for their lives. No one makes the trip just for fun."
Bravo noted that churches are ideally positioned to help asylum seekers with spiritual and material resources. "It is not an easy ask," she said, "but if God compels you to do something, don't hesitate! You are needed, you are being called."
Said Dee, "If anyone is called to open their hearts and homes to those who suffer I would suggest answering the door, trusting God and humbly accepting the challenge to love. Although our acts of faith maybe difficult, they are no more difficult than if we were to find ourselves on the other side of that door."