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  WINDY CITY TIMES

'Safe Home' for LGBTQI asylum-seekers in Chicago
From a press release
2015-02-16

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Chicago — "A new home — and a safe home," said Valentine as he turns on a lamp in the new apartment donated by Namasté United Church of Christ in Chicago's Portage Park neighborhood. Their ministry partnership is designed to aid lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex ( LGBTQI ) individuals who are seeking asylum in the U.S. because their lives are at risk in their homelands.

Valentine, from Nigeria, will be the house manager for the new four-person apartment created in the vacant sexton quarters of the local congregation's church building. In exchange for a rent-free apartment, the four residents — Valentine, Kachi, John, and Abraham — will be sharing Namasté UCC janitorial and light maintenance duties to care for the congregation's property.

"It's a win-win ministry," said Rev. Marilyn Pagan-Banks, pastor of Namasté UCC and executive director of Chicago's food justice ministry A Just Harvest. "For Namasté, it's the opportunity to be in global equality ministry even as we benefit from the care of our building and grounds."

Pagan-Banks and Namasté heard of the work of CLASP, Chicago's LGBT Asylum Support Program, and reached out to be in partnership. "We're so grateful for Namasté UCC going into this ministry with us," says Dennis Akpona Ojiyoma, co-founder of CLASP. "We're happy to find another local congregation welcoming to LGBTQI people, who are also fighting for justice in many areas," he says.

Namasté UCC joins Broadway United Methodist Church in supporting CLASP and its other partner, the Center for Integration and Courageous Living ( CiCLiv ), founded by another CLASP co-founder, John Ademola Adewoye. "Moving four men to Namasté frees up space for additional people in danger to come to the U.S.," he says. Adewoye has opened his own home to CiCLiv as a first-stop for those who are fleeing threats and persecution in Nigeria, Ghana, and Uganda, among other areas.

CLASP is one of the premier organizing efforts that grew out of the LGBT-Freedom & Asylum Network ( LGBT-FAN ), a nationwide group focused on mobilizing open and affirming congregations and movement leaders to help asylum seekers who face daunting obstacles after they arrive in the USA.

In over 75 countries can be imprisoned; in seven of those countries, the punishment can be death. "We feel a moral obligation to help provide safety," says Ojiyoma, who is the first of the CLASP family to "graduate," achieving asylum from Nigeria last year. CLASP, CiCLiv, and Namasté are working together to provide direct service ( food & shelter ) and community support ( transportation, social and spiritual activities, etc. ) in hopes that asylum seekers won't feel alone or afraid as they navigate the U.S. culture and immigration system.

CLASP is uniquely linked to the Chicago Coalition of Welcoming Churches and faith communities, and Reconciling United Methodist congregations to garner assistance for asylum seekers in the "limbo" period between claiming a need for asylum and the asylum interview with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement ( ICE ). During this period, the asylum seekers are not allowed to work, nor do they benefit from governmental support that is available to refugees.

CLASP has formed a Speakers' Bureau with Justice For Our Neighbors ( JFON ) to collaborate in providing speakers to help raise awareness about the need for immigration reform; and to educate about the differences in immigrant, refugee, and asylum status. JFON provides pro-bono legal services and helps immigrants to navigate the current system.

Donations of goods and cash from many individuals, from Broadway UMC and University Church UCC members, and from Heartland Alliance's partner Sharing Connections have made possible the move into Namasté. For those seeking to help support this project and the global LGBTQI community, you can support CLASP by donating online ( please designate your gift to "clasp" ) through Broadway United Methodist Church at www.broadwaychurchchicago.com/give .

If you're able to provide volunteer opportunities for asylum-seekers; if you are interested in donating gently-used clothing or goods ( floor lamps are currently needed ); if you are able to underwrite monthly internet, grocery, or laundry costs — please be in touch with Rev. Lois McCullen Parr at gizhilois@yahoo.com or Dennis Ojiyoma at dennygyus@gmail.com .

For background information, see www.lgbt-fan.org/ for LGBT-FAN; www.cicliv.org/ for the Center for Integration and Courageous Living; namasteuccil.com/about/ for Namasté UCC; jfonnic.org/ for JFON; and www.sharingconnections.org/ .


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