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    In Worcester, a safe haven for gay immigrants

    Vanessa Okumu, a 26-year-old asylum seeker, fled her home in Uganda because “I couldn’t take the constant harassment.”
    Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
    Vanessa Okumu, a 26-year-old asylum seeker, fled her home in Uganda because “I couldn’t take the constant harassment.”

    WORCESTER — Farouk Kaweesi had never seen snow before, and the 27-year-old Ugandan was not wearing a coat when he showed up in January, unannounced and shivering, at the locked doors of the Hadwen Park Congregational Church.

    He waited alone until dark on the steps of the century-old building before retracing his steps to the Worcester bus station, where he slept inside before returning to the church the next morning. This time, a neighbor took him in until it opened.

    From halfway around the world, guided only by an address in a city he had never heard of, Kaweesi made his way to this simple wooden church to find safe haven. In his homeland, Kaweesi had feared being tortured and killed simply because he was gay.

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    Now, Kaweesi said, “I feel safe when I come here.”

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    Drawn by word of mouth and desperate Internet searches, more than 150 gay and transgender men and women — mostly from Africa and the Caribbean — have made the church the foundation for a better life, and one more symbol of this city’s decades-long reputation as a refuge for immigrants.

    Like Kaweesi, many of them arrive without notice, knocking on the door of a church that someone, from somewhere far away, had told them would help. The Rev. Judith Hanlon, the pastor who has stitched this project into the church’s mission, shook her head at its now-global reach.

    “These things are a miracle,” Hanlon said.

    From the program’s beginnings a decade ago, the church’s LGBT Task Force is providing housing, food, and a monthly stipend to 25 gay immigrants — many of them professionals — who arrived here with legal visas and are seeking asylum. The total cost is $25,000 a month, which comes almost entirely from private donations and other churches that welcome the LGBT community. No federal or state money is used.

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    Six anxious immigrants remain in the area on a waiting list, said Hanlon, who never knows when another frightened person will show up, someone like Vanessa Okumu, a 26-year-old from Uganda who fled her country because “I couldn’t take the constant harassment.”

    “I was so lucky,” she said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

    Now Okumu lives in a downtown apartment where her rent is covered by the task force. Like the other asylum seekers, Okumu will receive assistance until two months after she receives a work permit and Social Security number, a process that Hanlon said usually lasts about a year.

    The task force is run by Al Green, a 28-year-old church deacon from Jamaica who stands ready to help at every step. Volunteers take immigrants to interviews, the grocery store, and driver’s education classes and pitch in wherever else they are needed.

    Green, who is gay, knows their trauma firsthand. He was once stoned after leaving a movie theater with a gay friend in Jamaica, he recalled. Now, he works 60 hours a week for the task force.

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    From the outside, Hadwen Park exudes the feel of those sturdy, unpretentious churches from an older time that are scattered throughout New England. But what happens inside might be unprecedented in its scope in the United States, Hanlon said.

    ‘We get e-mails almost every day from people who want to kill themselves.’

    — The Rev. Judith Hanlon, of her role in raising awareness of the plight of persecuted gays 

    “I say to my husband, ‘What if we weren’t here?’ ” Hanlon said. “We get e-mails almost every day from people who want to kill themselves.”

    In a time of cultural division and anti-immigrant backlash, the pastor likened the task force’s work to “a perfect holy storm” of immediate need and a welcoming location. For Mayor Joseph Petty, the city’s open-arms approach to immigrants and refugees is a badge of honor.

    “We’re supposed to take care of one another, not hurt one another,” Petty said after a recent celebration of Worcester’s diversity.

    The numbers show that acceptance is more than rhetoric here.

    From January 2010 through February 2017, State Department data show that 3,090 refugees arrived in Worcester, 28 percent more than in Boston, which recorded the state’s second-highest total. In addition, the city last year accepted more than 1,100 Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria, Petty said.

    Once they arrive, the economic prospects appear heartening, according to a 2015 study commissioned by the Seven Hills Foundation, which focuses on health and human services.

    From left, Okumu; church deacon Al Green; Farouk Kaweesi, also from Uganda; and Judith Hanlon, pastor of Hadwen Park Congregational Church.
    Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
    From left, Okumu; church deacon Al Green; Farouk Kaweesi, also from Uganda; and Judith Hanlon, pastor of Hadwen Park Congregational Church.

    Foreign-born residents of Worcester who became citizens had a median household income of almost $51,000, the highest figure of all groups studied in Worcester, where 38,000 immigrants make up 21 percent of the population, compared with 15 percent statewide. Native-born households in the city took in just over $46,000.

    In addition, foreign-born entrepreneurs accounted for 37 percent of business owners, double the statewide rate.

    “We’re going in the right direction,” Petty said. “It makes the city stronger.”

    Kaweesi, who left behind a farm to come here, said he already feels the benefits of more opportunity and less stress.

    He had been arrested and beaten by Ugandan police because of his sexuality, identified in a newspaper as a gay man, and told by his partner’s family that they would hunt and kill him.

    Now he no longer lives in mortal peril. Someday, Kaweesi said, he hopes to create an organization to help the homeless.

    For her part, Hanlon said she never imagined where her ministry would lead.

    “Never in a million years,” the pastor said. “In 2008, I didn’t even know it was illegal to be gay in some countries.”

    Now she roams the country — “the traveling salvation show,” she says with a smile — raising awareness of the plight of persecuted gays and the need to help them.

    Her efforts are bearing fruit, some of it delightfully unexpected.

    On a recent day, seated in a small meeting room inside the church, Hanlon waved a newly arrived check for $100 from The Wilde Bunch, a square-dance club 2,200 miles away in Albuquerque.

    “I don’t know how they heard about us,” Hanlon said.

    Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.