A life dedicated to Cardiff’s LGBTQ asylum-seekers

As thousands of LGBTQ people ask the UK for refugee status, Mark Lewis blends activism and friendship to offer support in Cardiff.

City United Reformed Church
The pulpit at City United Reformed Church in Cardiff, where Mark Lewis spends most of his weekends.

“I was actually christened in a church,” Mark Lewis says, walking to the front row of pews at City United Reformed Church in Cardiff. “This is the only church in Cardiff, and perhaps even in the whole of Wales, that performs gay weddings.”

This church, with an adjoining café, bookstore and homeless hostel, is where Mr Lewis holds social gatherings for Hoops and Loops, a support group for LGBTQ asylum-seekers in Cardiff fleeing persecution and violence in their home countries. “I’m hoping this year to get charitable status, so we can get funding,” he says of his goals for 2019.

Mr Lewis is an elder at the church and the chair of the Labour Party in his home ward. He is new to the role of Hoops and Loops chair this year, but has been involved in the group since shortly after its creation in 2015. He hopes to build a network of church members and activists across the UK able to offer personal support to those struggling with the asylum-seeking process.

“The idea of Hoops and Loops is to become more of a support group,” he explains. “These guys don’t have anyone else that they can talk to.” On top of monthly meetings at the church’s café, Steen the Chef, Mr Lewis sends text messages to the group every week, checking in and offering his time to meet and chat.

Mark Lewis City URL Elder
Mark Lewis is an ordained elder at City URC. He is vigilant about maintaining a welcoming environment at the church.

“My childhood was wonderful, in respect of really good parents.” He speaks slowly and deliberately, pausing to search for the right words—but not hesitating to share personal stories. “My relationship with them is basically non-existent, purely because—possibly because—I’m gay. We don’t really know that. It’s never been discussed.”

Now 51 years old, Mr Lewis was born in Cardiff and has lived in the area for most of his life. He gives his grandmother credit for making him who he is today. “The enthusiasm she had was amazing.” Mr Lewis visited and cared for her in hospice when she fell terminally ill some 30 years ago.

“She came out of the toilet one day, and she said, ‘Mark, you make a goddamn good nurse.’ Yeah, right, okay. No worries. At that point in my life, I had a lot of learning to do. I wasn’t as I am now. I was very quiet, had not much confidence. In those days, you didn’t know what you were. But I also knew I was gay at a young age.”

His eyes glisten slightly. “I was with her when she died,” he says. “And I did nine years then as a nurse.”

Most plainly, he says, “I do what I do because I care about people.”

Mark Lewis Soda
Mark Lewis serves soda to a friend prior to a Hoops and Loops meeting.

Compassion informs the work Mr Lewis does with Hoops and Loops, where he has developed a number of relationships with individuals fleeing trauma at home only to face more frustration in the UK.

“There’s a guy who comes, he’s from Cameroon,” he says. “He was tortured in his country. He had his fingernails removed, and he’s been lashed by people in authority who don’t like gay people.” Mr Lewis says his friendship with this man is his most poignant.

The man came to the UK several years ago and is still awaiting the results of his plea for asylum. He has been relocated from London to Cardiff, where he has been evicted from his flat and is now staying with a minister. “He had to have a report done in London with a doctor who said, ‘So tell me, where did you get this scar? Where did you get this mess?'” Mr Lewis says. The report has yet to be sent from London to Cardiff.

Mark Lewis Hoops Loops Steen Chef
Mark Lewis speaks with a member of Hoops and Loops at Steen the Chef café, which adjoins the church.

Stories like these highlight both the difficulty and the impact of the work Mr Lewis does. “I want to give them friendship as much as I can, try and give them some kind of light in their life,” he says.

Members of Hoops and Loops are at risk of relocation or detention at any given time. And although Mr Lewis has not sought asylum himself, he believes his personal experiences connect him to the people he supports.

“I know what it’s like when someone loses their home, because it happened to me when I had a stroke at 37. I know what it’s like when you have no money. I know what it’s like when you have to sell the things that mean a lot to you,” he says.

City URC Timeline Gay Wedding
City URC’s historical timeline culminates with its first gay wedding in 2017.

Now, Mr Lewis blends his roles as a religious and political leader with his work for Hoops and Loops, looking to enact changes larger than what he offers as a friend and supporter. “I’m in a privileged position where I can try and make a difference through the political party—not only in Cardiff, but throughout the country because there are LGBT refugees in other cities in Britain.” Later this month, he will discuss asylum and refugee issues at a Labour LGBT Forum meeting.

There are countless broad concepts Mr Lewis denounces as harmful to LGBTQ asylum-seekers: austerity, language and xenophobia are only a few. But they reveal themselves through concrete issues he believes British society should address.

He accompanied a Hoops and Loops member to a recent court hearing where the asylum-seeker was asked for proof that he is gay. “They have to get over this issue of proving that an individual is gay,” he says. “We all get and have been—like myself—been demonised, been abused, been stigmatised. And until that mentality changes, then the process will continue being the way it is.”

Mark Lewis Coffee Café
Mark Lewis enjoys coffee at the café where Hoops and Loops meetings are held.

Society has a long way to go. The challenges Mr Lewis faces in his work are innumerable, but in between his campaigns and meetings, he sits in the church and serves coffee at the café. After all, he says, his environment is just as important to people as his work.

“They can come and just be themselves.”