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Meet the D.C. Area Church Welcoming LGBTQ+ Asylum Seekers to the United States

St. Thomas' Parish church. The building is white with a tall tower out front. It sits on a street corner and has a very modern aesthetic.

(Photo by Ron Blunt)

When you think of a safe space, what do you think of? Home? A friend’s place? Your local LGBTQ+ center? Maybe your favorite queer bar? You may not have thought of a church, but for the Washington, D.C. community and LGBTQ+ asylum seekers entering the United States, St. Thomas’ Parish is working to prove it belongs on that list.


A Place for Everyone

The most important thing to know about St. Thomas’ Parish—an Episcopal church in D.C.’s vibrant Dupont Circle—is that their worshipping community is all about inclusion. The About Us section on its website describes the church as “a community that unconditionally welcomes people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, immigration statuses, economic realities, and political persuasions. God loves everyone, with no exceptions.” And the people of St. Thomas’ Parish truly mean it.

In early 2022, the church began offering aid to recently arrived asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants. They started working with Afghan asylum seekers. Then, when Governor Greg Abbott started bussing asylum seekers from Texas into D.C., St. Thomas’ Parish was there to welcome them too. Reverend Lisa Saunders Ahuja, the church Rector, says, “Every Saturday, people would come here after they got off of the bus, and we would offer clothing, food, and general hospitality. We would also help them get to the next place.”

Very quickly, the church community realized that LGBTQ+ asylum seekers faced additional struggles in trying to get settled. DC has hotels specifically commissioned to provide no-cost shelter and food to migrant families, but to qualify those families must have children. “The majority of the LGBTQ+ people couldn’t go there because they didn’t have children with them. A couple did, but the majority did not. And some that did [have children], didn’t feel comfortable being out at the hotels,” Ahuja explains. Many asylum seekers in this group were from Venezuela, where discrimination and harassment based on gender and sexual orientation are not uncommon.

Of the 800 migrants that passed through St. Thomas’ Parish in one year, Ahuja says that the majority who have stayed in touch with them are LGBTQ+. Some have become members of the church (though no one is asked to do so in order to access the church’s help), others have received rental assistance, help with signing up for medical care and children’s services, accompaniment to medical appointments to ensure translation services were provided, and additional types of aid as needed.


Supporting LGBTQ+ Refugees

Eventually, DC set up a system for receiving migrants, and St. Thomas’ Parish’s services as a respite site were no longer needed. So the church’s leadership and congregation began to ask themselves, “How can we make the biggest impact?” They decided to focus on providing housing and offering companionship to those new to the country.

Around this time, St. Thomas’ Parish was put in contact with Rainbow Railroad, an organization that provides support and relocation aid to LGBTQ+ folks in danger worldwide. Rainbow Railroad was looking to partner with an organization that had deep networks in the DC community for their Communities of Care private sponsorship program, specifically an organization that could welcome the LGBTQ+ community. “I think we do it well,” Ahuja says. “Our church is about 85% LGBTQ+, as is our elected leadership. It’s been that way for several decades.”

Ahuja says it’s been a perfect match. “Rainbow Railroad has a way for people to come to the U.S. and find safety. And we have the people power to help people find not just a place to live, but a home and a community,” Ahuja says.

When it came time for church members to sign up to work with the people arriving with Rainbow Railroad, the response far exceeded Ahuja’s expectations. “I think we have at least 60 members signed up to be on a Private Sponsor Group (PSG),” Ahuja says. “Usually you have like 10 people sign up to do something, so this has a really big participation level.” In fact, some church members have even brought in friends and colleagues from outside of the worship community to be a part of their PSGs.

The first team is excited to welcome someone arriving with Rainbow Railroad over the next few months. They plan to help this person find housing, medical care, and other basic needs. The PSG will also use St. Thomas’ Parish’s existing partnerships within the community to help this person find a job and secure any job training they may need.

While Rainbow Railroad only requires a three-month connection from the PSGs, Ahuja says they aren’t planning on an end date to their aid. “From our previous experience, we know this can be a transformative experience, and we want that. We are inviting those that arrive to be our friends.”


A DC Hub for Community

St. Thomas’ Parish’s outreach isn’t limited to helping people new to the area. They also aim to welcome those in the D.C. metro area. The current church building is only four years old and was intentionally built to be much bigger than the worshipping community actually needed.

As more and more of D.C.’s LGBTQ+ population in Dupont Circle made the decision to age in place, leadership noticed that there weren’t many spaces to gather in community—so they chose to build one.

Since opening the new building, the response from long-time residents of the neighborhood has been overwhelmingly positive. Neighbors like seeing the community hub that the church has become, and they are happy to have a space where they can socialize and help those around them, even if those neighbors aren’t part of the Christian faith.

And that is the core of who St. Thoma’s Parish is as an institution. “Our practice is to welcome people because we were welcomed,” Ahuja says. “We really hope that people—whether they’re walking through our doors for worship, a recovery group during the week, or to help with outreach work like with Rainbow Railroad—feel welcomed and celebrated for who they are.”


In partnership with Rainbow Railroad






Sondra Rose Marie
Sondra Rose Marie
Sondra Rose Marie Morris (she/her) is a memoirist, journalist, and entrepreneur. Her words covering mental health, racism, death, and sexuality can be found in ZORA, Human Parts, Dope Cause We Said, The Q26, and on Medium. As of 2024, Sondra is the owner and Editor in Chief for Tagg Magazine. Follow her adventures on Instagram @SondraWritesStuff or Twitter @sondrarosemarie.