EMM’s Rainbow Initiative to observe World Refugee Day, participate in panel discussion and Pride Mass

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Jun 16, 2023

[Episcopal News Service] On June 25, the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee will host a panel discussion on Episcopal Migration Ministries’ new Rainbow Initiative and LGBTQ+ forced migrants.

The discussion will start at 3:30 p.m. Eastern at Episcopal Church of the Good Samaritan in Knoxville, Tennessee. It will feature panelists from EMM, the U.S. State Department, Bridge Refugee Services and others. East Tennessee Bishop Brian Cole will moderate the discussion.

“In the Diocese of East Tennessee, we are proud to support the launch of The Rainbow Initiative and the critical need to welcome LGBTQ+ forced migrants now,” Cole told Episcopal News Service in a written statement.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] To support EMM’s Rainbow Initiative click here. [/perfectpullquote]

“We are thrilled to be part of the event happening in Knoxville,” said Sarah Shipman, operations director for EMM. “It’s a beautiful coming together for EMM with our valued partners — the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee and our longtime refugee resettlement affiliate, Bridge Refugee Services, based in Knoxville.

“While the Diocese of East Tennessee has long celebrated Pride, and Bridge Refugee Services has hosted community events for World Refugee Day for years, we realize the timing of June 25 events has even greater importance — given the recent passage of laws in states across the country, including Tennessee, that harmfully target the LGBTQ+ community. This is an opportunity for us to come together in conversation and in prayer for refugees and the LGBTQ+ community, and for our neighbors near and far who are forcibly displaced because of their LGBTQ+ identity.”

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed seven anti-LGBTQ+ laws in 2023 alone. The state ranks No. 1 in the U.S. for laws targeting the rights of LGBTQ+ people.

In response to General Convention’s 2022 resolution on supporting LGBTQ+ refugees and asylum-seekers, EMM launched The Rainbow Initiative, a project dedicated to working with Episcopal churches to bring awareness and aid to LGBTQ+ migrants and asylum-seekers. So far, The Rainbow Initiative has partnered with 20 churches, ministries and organizations of various denominations.

“We are commanded to love the neighbor, and [The Rainbow Initiative] is an answer,” Shipman told ENS.

At the end of 2022, there were an estimated 104.8 million people worldwide who were forcibly displaced because of persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations, according to the United Nations. That same year 22,465 refugees were admitted to the United States, nearly double the number from 2021. Although the terms migrants and asylum-seekers are often used interchangeably, not all migrants are asylum-seekers. The latter are people seeking protection from persecution or violence but who haven’t yet been legally recognized as refugees.

An unknown number of forced migrants are LGBTQ+, most of whom may be at higher risk of marginalization not just along their journey, but also when they arrive at their destination. Currently, 64 countries criminalize homosexuality, several of which impose the death penalty.

After the panel discussion, hundreds of people are expected to attend a Pride Mass starting at 5 p.m. The Rev. Kevin Strickland, bishop of the Southeastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, will be a featured guest preacher. Monetary donations collected during the Pride Mass will benefit The Rainbow Initiative and Bridge Refugee Services.

Episcopal churches across the United States are celebrating the 52nd annual Pride Month in June with events ranging from special worship services and festivals to hosting LGBTQ+ proms and advocacy discussions. Events are taking place as anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment continues to rise in the United States. Currently, bills targeting LGBTQ+ rights introduced by state legislatures have more than doubled since 2022.

The Rainbow Initiative panel discussion and Pride Mass will take place five days after World Refugee Day on June 20, an annual international day designated by the United Nations to recognize and honor refugees worldwide.

In his 2023 World Refugee Day sermon, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says he’s been thinking about Matthew 25, where Jesus tells a parable of judgment day, in the context of welcoming and supporting the stranger — refugees. Highlighting The Rainbow Initiative in his sermon, Curry also reminds Episcopalians to consider that LGBTQ+ people in many countries face additional persecution for being who they are.

“We do this work committed to the one named Jesus, who himself, with Mary and Joseph, was once a refugee,” Curry says. “As people helped the Holy Family to flee persecution, to find safety, so may we this year on World Refugee Day recommit our efforts and our commitments to do all that we can to welcome the stranger.”

ENS spoke to Al Green, a gay asylum-seeker from Jamaica who has been waiting for his case to be processed since he applied for asylum in 2016. In the meantime, “I’m just left in limbo,” he said, though he does have work authorization.

Green is the ministry director of the LGBT Asylum Task Force, a ministry of Hadwen Park Congregational Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, a United Church of Christ parish.

Green said the LGBT Asylum Task Force and The Rainbow Initiative are planning a collaboration. He also told ENS he believes supporting LGBTQ+ forced migrants is something Jesus would do.

“I think that to some extent, we as Christians are in love with the theory of Christianity, but not necessarily the practice of it,” Green said. “Putting our faith into practice, Christ would be there for the marginalized and for folks who are oppressed. Christ would be there for the people who society has forgotten and has discriminated against.”

The LGBT Asylum Task Force has housed about 400 asylum-seekers since its inception in 2008 and is currently housing 31, according to Green, who is a colleague of Max Niedzwiecki, a consultant for The Rainbow Initiative. Green said at least half of the LGBTQ+ asylum-seekers have lately been arriving from Jamaica and Uganda.

Recently, Anglican Archbishop Stephen Kaziimba of Uganda expressed support for the country’s new law that expands criminalization of homosexuality with punishments including life in prison and possibly the death penalty. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has condemned the anti-LGBTQ+ law and contacted Kaziimba, urging him to rescind support.

Cole told ENS that Uganda’s new anti-LGBTQ+ law is an example why programs like The Rainbow Initiative are crucial to supporting LGBTQ+ forced migrants.

“The Rainbow Initiative is critically needed as we continue to see the criminalization of homosexuality in countries like Uganda and the Anglican Church of Uganda’s support of these laws,” he said.

Green said that many LGBTQ+ forced migrants are initially apprehensive of going to the LGBT Task Force for assistance when they arrive in the United States because they’ve been harmed by Christians, “but it has been eye-opening and faith-renewing for many to see that there’s a different side of Christianity.”

“It is unfortunate that other folks misinterpret a text and use it outside of the broader context of the times and use it to hurt people, but our faith is about love, and it is about valuing people and taking care of the downtrodden and marginalized,” Green said. “And for many LGBTQ asylum-seekers who are Christian and struggle with being marginalized, they are wanting to find somewhere they feel loved and included, and we can be a space where they can find that.”

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.