Community Spotlight: Erik Swope-Wise

Erik Swope-Wise is the Fine Jewelry Complex Manager at Macy’s and Jada, a fashion model in New York City. Erik runs and funds an LGBTQ+ safe house in Nigeria and is a former pastor. This is a story of their journeys and a cultural background of what it’s like to be LGBTQ+ in Nigeria, West Africa. 

Luke: So, Erik, tell me a bit about your life, particularly as a pastor?  

Erik: I grew up in a very conservative environment in Houston. I was bred to go into ministry, as I have a Pentecostal background. It was very high energy, but lots of conservatism and judgmentalism. I actually, flowed through the traditional expectations. I was married for 21 years. I have a daughter and an adopted son. In 1990, I moved to Chicago, planting intercity churches, blurring across racial and cultural lines. I also had a recording contract in gospel music where I sang, played and co-produced 5 albums.   

Luke: How long were you in Chicago for? 

Erik: Almost 30 years. While I was there, in 1999 I was able to act on something that I had known was a part of me since I was a boy. Growing up in church the whole construct was; the missionaries would come visit on Mission Sunday. Back then we had a morning service and an evening service. I would hear the missionaries tell their experiences, then come home and come back that evening with my piggy bank and give everything I had. I guess I’ve always had a heart for people, especially for those that couldn’t do for themselves. That’s kind of where it all started… 

So in 1999, I went to Nigeria for a couple of weeks to help build churches. This became a major passion of mine and resulted in 86 churches being built across Nigeria.  

Luke: What was the transition like from religious-based ministry to more LGBTQ+/humanitarian focused?  

Erik: It was a long journey. I had to unlearn a lot of things that were instilled. I had to figure out what was right for me. I went through a period starting in 1993 where I had to reconcile my faith with my sexuality. At the time there was no Pentecostal conservative gay man… in a pulpit! Well at least none that I knew of. 

I never preached against it and I always deflected any conversation about it, because I was on my journey. As I made a transition, it was a search for faith, without it being religion. These are very different things.  

I don’t think everyone gets that. You can have one, without having the other.  

Erik: When I did eventually come out in 2006, everything was at stake. There were existing ministries in Chicago that were not gonna get it. There were churches in Nigeria looking for leadership, a place that is even more conservative in its construct of sexuality and religiosity than America is, and it’s our fault they are that way. We imparted that. Everything was on the table and I would probably lose it all… 

But in the process of not trying to lose it all, I lost me. I had to find me, before I could do anything else. So, coming out in 2006, it was an expectation of starting from scratch. I had this plan to make it smooth and easy. I was a pastor of this great church in Intercity Chicago, so I brought in someone I had known almost my entire life, from Texas. I was going make him the assistant pastor, train him and ingratiate him into the congregation. Then I would install him as pastor, come out to my family and not cause any strife within the church.  

Unfortunately, six months after Joe came up, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Six months later he was gone.  

Erik: His daughter Amanda came to live with me and my family while he was sick, as she needed guidance to get through high school. On his death bed, he asked me to take care of his daughter and please be her dad. Once he passed, Amanda continued to stay with us in the house.  

Six months after, my coming out took place. It wasn’t anything like I had planned for it to be. In fact it was brutal. There were a series of betrayals and hurts by the very people that I had invested years of love and compassion into. Even getting one of them through a suicide attempt during post-partum depression. Somehow, got through it. About six months after that, Amanda came out to me… and 5 minutes later, my daughter comes out to me and tell me that they are together! 

Luke: Wow! 

Erik: Yea… they were in love, are now married and have a home in Chicago. I had adopted my son at 11 and he came out at 13. Both of my kids are a part of the LGBTQ+ community, so it made our coming out processes a little unique…..well VERY unique. 

I took two years out of ministry to find me and get to know my community. It taught me about what my purpose is. I’ve pastored affirming churches, I still lead a number of affirming churches/ministries, but as a bishop, not as the pastor.  

My heart was still in overseas missions work. So I reached out to some of my previous connections, and there was about 10-15% of the people that still just loved me for me and that was huge. So, I started going back, albeit nervously.  

When I got back there, all I saw was brokenness and hurt. Over some transition time, a year or two, I put people in charge of the ministry side of things, and turned my main attention to the humanitarian side.  

That’s when the Hope Center began.  

Erik: Nigeria is one of the worst places to be LGBTQ+ in the entire world. I have lost young LGBTQ+ men and women in Nigeria. They come out, or are outed mostly, then they are never been seen again. Families (due to the shame) or police (by taking matters into their own hands use what is called “jungle justice” and dispose of these young people. I couldn’t sit by and do nothing. I’m just one man, but I had to do SOMETHING.  

In starting the Center, we had to keep the eyes of the government off of it. We started a training center where any underprivileged teenager can get Microsoft Office training, fashion design and construction, jewelry manufacturing, cosmetology, etc. They now have a legitimate skill that can make them money if their family can pay for them to go to school.  

So, while that’s going on along the surface, not far away, we put in place the safe house for the LGBTQ+ community. I’ve had anywhere from 4-32 kids in the house at any given time. 2-bedroom bungalow, 12 ft. cinder block walls, razor wire on top, iron gate front, 24-hour security… just so these kids are safe.  

It’s incredible to see how harsh the community is to these boys and girls over there. There is no leniency. If you are assumed to be gay, 14-years imprisonment, up to life if you’re caught in the act. That’s ‘if’ the police are involved. If the family is involved, that’s when jungle justice comes in to remove the shame from your family.  

Erik: We’ve had that happen. I’ve had two young people in a relationship that were working in the marketplace down the road from each other. The other merchants began to see what was going on. After a few months, they followed them to their home and caught them in bed together. Beheaded one, broke the shoulder and leg of the other, but he did get away with his life.  

Any number of things people will take into their own hands and the police will turn a blind eye. 

Erik: Jada, myself and two others, on New Year’s Day in 2016 went out for the evening. We were going to travel a little ways from where we were staying to do karaoke. We didn’t finish up until almost 1am and the motor taxis that usually take us to where we need to go where no longer there.  

Now I walk it every day, it’s a 15-minute walk, I know the way, no big deal. But on this night, there was four of us walking. There was one small space that was darker and these three guys come out from behind us with machetes.  

I say to them ‘You don’t want to do this. You don’t want to do this.’  

I had a cross body bag and one of them reached to grab my bag and I told Jada and the other boy to run.  

Now I’ve never been in a physical fight in my life, I’m a pretty non-confrontational person, but I got into the fight for my life. They start swinging machetes and scraped some skin off my arm, and the next one came down directly on my wrist.  

Had I not been wearing a watch, that my family had given me for my birthday and had never worn in Nigeria before, I would not have a left hand. One of them jumped on my husband’s back, put him on the ground and split open the back of his head.  

I didn’t know I could fight, guess I watched enough TV, but I got the guy off my partner’s back and we got away with our lives.  

Erik: That’s the kind of environment these boys and girls live in on a day-to-day basis.  

One of my little boys (ok, he’s older now, but always my little boy), Anthony, who is in Nigeria right now, ia a fashion designer, and lives in our house. Previously, he went away to design school and the school called his family and told them that he was gay. Now what I don’t understand is does the school really think there are students in their school that aren’t?  

When Anthony returned to his home compound, his grandfather, while Anthony was in the shower, pulled him out of the shower and said ‘Are you or are you not?’ 

Anthony said, ‘We’ve had this conversation over and over. You know I can’t change who I am.’ 

Anthony was chased out of his family’s compound naked, with only a washcloth and a backpack…  

Erik: I was in the United States when that happened, about three weeks from travelling back to Nigeria. Something in my gut told me to check on Anthony, I hadn’t heard from him. I sent a message on ‘WhatsApp’ and he happened to respond back and told me what was happening. So, I sent money to our director at the house and instructed him to get a bus to pick him up. He was hiding out in a dumpster with the wash cloth, some clothes he got from a friend and a backpack… 

We brought him in to the house, got him established, got him a sewing machine and this young man, whose grandfather and family told him that he was nothing, never will never be anything and we are cutting you out of our lives… This young man has now designed clothes for Tampa Fashion Week and shows on runways all across the United States. Anthony is a testament to what can be done when determination meets opportunity. He’s living safely right now in the safe house. He has a forever-family that will only continue to grow.  

Luke: So Jada, tell me how did you end up in the United States and tell me a little bit about what you are doing right now? 

Jada: Due to the all the problems, and because I had been in a lot of dangerous situations, I felt like my life was in danger in Nigeria. My mom bought me an outbound ticket and helped me get here, to the US. 

Erik: Mom is supportive, but she does not want to talk about it… 

Jada: Yes, she is very supportive. She helped me get my visa together and she sponsored me to get here. When I arrived, Erik helped me get the life I have.  

I am doing my modeling and other side gigs. I also recently moved to New York, last month. New York is nice, but it is challenging, sometimes I feel like I want to come back. 

Luke: What is the most challenging part? 

Jada: Living alone, thinking for myself. Doing all of the things by myself is very challenging. And the food, because I now have to eat out. Nobody is here in New York to cook for me, like Erik has been doing. 

Erik: Getting a visa to get out of Nigeria is almost impossible. I’ve gone to the US embassy dressed in full clergy attire and got no results. I had only been back for a couple of months, when Jada said, “I am coming.” And I said, “I know you want to come, that’s really cool. Maybe someday,” and he said, “No, I have my visa. I’m coming on this date and I will be arriving in Atlanta.” That alone is a miracle. 

Erik: Jada is the third young man we have helped come over and there are two more that are on their way. There is no way to help them get a visa. So, to be able to get one is huge. Elyan, the first one that we brought over, attempted 9 times to get a visa. The interviews cost them $200. No refunds, no credits, no guarantees, and no explanations why you get denied. Just, “apply again in 6 months.” Elyan took 9 attempts and finally found a conference that invited him and for some reason the agent that he got was on board. $1,800 just to have interviews, plus the cost of traveling to the embassy from across the country. Keep in mind that average individual income there is about $100US dollars per month. 

Ekeng, was a little bit different. He was the first runner-up on a version of The Voice in Nigeria, and because the winner of that season bailed, he became the winner. He is now in Chicago. He was a talk show host back home, and his coming out here was a big deal. He was kind of like what Ryan Seacrest is here, always doing interviews in fashion and stuff like that, it was faster for him to get here. But once you arrive here and come out, your family over there is pretty much done with you. We are coming on two years since Jada’s arrival, and his first pride, or LGBT event, was St Pete Pride. I have pictures that show how much fun he had and that this was the first time he could be himself. But, there was no turning back after that, once it got on Facebook, the whole world knew…  

Erik: But getting here, is just the first step. Once you get here, filing for asylum is very expensive, and time consuming. Jada had a hand of grace over his entire journey, his ability to get his visa, we got an immigration attorney through catholic charities that cost us a very little, which is a miracle and half, so all we had to do was filing fees. Everything was processed and approved on the first try. It was totally a hand of grace. Some of the other ones have taken a long, long time. Even years.  And with the climate we are currently in with this topic of immigration, it’s getting more difficult for it to happen.  

Erik: The Hope Center safe house, is vitality important to me. I talk with them every single day, but it does not stop there. It’s about helping some of these young men and women get settled into a life they can actually live and be successful. After that, integrate them into the society here, the cultural shock. Although America is the land of opportunity, it is an expensive venture to find that opportunity. The dollar exchange rate is very high compared to their Naira. For example, with The Hope Center safe house, the rent is $2,000 for the whole year, and that’s it. Of course, there are utilities, food, and emergencies, but that’s all it takes. And when I was living there, and posting pictures there, it was easier to get funding. When I am not there, but still trying to make it happen, it’s more difficult because donors think I’m not doing anything. The problem is they do not see the day to day, or hear the phone calls that you get a 2am with kids crying, “I don’t know where to go or what to do”. They don’t experience the rescue missions, when we have to slip in in the middle of the night to get a young person out so they can get to the safe house, and then talk them off of the ledge.  

The suicide rates for LGBT teens and young people in Nigeria is huge. There is only a small group, bold enough to fight for their rights, but they are there. After that, they are part of this great divide. All these young people are now absent of any family, so The Hope Center becomes their family. If you ask me how many kids I have, I’m going to say hundreds. If I show up at their door, I am going to be dad, because their family is gone. Their families are not going to embrace them, they do not exist to them any longer. Jada is very lucky that his mom is still very supportive in that regards, some others won’t ever speak to their children again. With Anthony, our fashion designer, it’s taken 3 years and now they are barely just talking. 

Erik: On top of that, it is not safe for them to be out. And that is part of the training they have to do, “What do you have to do to stay alive?” When you are inside the walls of this compound, you can be Beyoncé, in your high heels, and whatever else you want to add. But, when you walk out of those doors, you have to be Jay Z because I need to make sure that you come back at the end of the night. It is not giving up your identity, it is simply staying alive.  

I guess some people in our develop world, where we have a bit more freedom, don’t understand that there are still places like that. And it’s not that they are not standing up, they just don’t have the ability to do that and stay alive. Its brutal. There was a hairstylist in Nigeria that got pulled over because he looked gay. And he was interrogated and thrown in jail until he could make bail. Missed work, missed a show, just because he looked gay, and that is the environment these kids live in. It’s a scary thing for them to just go through day to day.  

There are a couple of advocacies groups in Nigeria, and places where they can get tested. We do this thing called Helping Hands Outreach, where we give free manicures, haircuts, and stuff like that. It might not look like a lot, but when you have a mom with 5 kids, getting a haircut for free its huge, and it also means that we are giving back. More than that is teaching our young people that this is the path you can take. During the community Outreaches, we also do HIV testing and counseling. Some may never go to a testing site to do it because of the stigma and the fear of being seen.; but, when everyone is being tested, it can go unnoticed. 

Erik: Another thing we do is just “Chill and Chat”. Here they can invite their friends. However, their friends have to be screened because security cannot let just anybody in the safe house. We have to ensure their safety above all. Maybe a dozen people, have some refreshments, and give them a chance to just talk. Some of them have never said, “I’m gay and I’m scared,” out loud. This is a time for us to tell them, “don’t be afraid, no one is getting in, just breathe for an hour.” Jada can tell you, we’ve had young people on mats, or towels on the floor, every available piece of floor, kitchen, bathroom, etc. They would rather sleep on the floor than go back home, because it is safer for them. 

Luke: Anything else you would like to add? 

Erik: I’ve been asked if we could do this anywhere else and the answer is, “yes,” but the questions is, “how?” We have to have people that are willing to work and do the sacrifice to help others. In 2015, we sold everything we had, but it was worth it. I would do it again. The Hope Center is there, and thankfully, there are people there that I trust and that can run the day-to-day. I do what I can from over here to make sure these people have food, meds, clothes, safety and love. I think this is where the whole reality of “born with purpose” comes in. What I thought was my purpose back then, was simply training for what my real purpose is. I don’t think I would have ever understood the amount of compassion I needed to start this journey. It taught me that each one has their own unique purpose and struggles. But most importantly that you don’t have to be my twin to be my brother. Together we can do anything.  I don’t regret my journey, any of it. It brought me here and I am thankful for where I am.