By Nathan James
When the City of New York announced its foreclosure sale of ATLAH World Missionaries, a Harlem church that has spread its anti-gay message of hatred for three decades, two prominent LGBT organizations quickly began efforts to acquire the building.
The church, headed by firebrand pastor James David Manning, has been in arrears with the city and various other creditors for over $1 million, and a judge ordered the building seized and sold at a February 24 public auction, although the cleric has vowed to defy the order. “I will let my church go,” Manning boasted, “when gay men are birthing babies out of their anus”.
While Manning rebuffed the courts, an “LGBT-affirming” church, Rivers of Living Waters, headed by Pastor Vanessa Brown, and the Ali Forney Center, a nonprofit LGBT homeless shelter operator, both undertook to “transform a shrine of hatred into a place of love,” according to Ali Forney officials.
Brown, whose nomadic church has rented space from other churches to perform its services, says making the ATLAH sanctuary a permanent home for her congregation, is her “primary goal”.
Speaking on a popular urban LGBT radio program, “Talk ‘N Tea with Tammy & Nathan”, Brown noted that although fundraising has been “progressing slowly”, she is optimistic that there will be strong “community support” for her endeavor. “we are bringing God’s love to the community,” she observed.
Manning and his church have long been the subject of simmering controversy, and the pastor has publicly excoriated the LGBT community for years, using his building’s marquee sign as his bully pulpit, displaying messages of hate towards gays, lesbians, and even President Obama.
“Gays are going to hell, and sodomites are overrunning Harlem,” Manning told the New York Times in a 2009 interview.
When the Obama White House began a series of progressive reforms aimed at making LGBT equality a legal reality in the military and federal employment, Manning began including the President in his anti-gay ran diatribes gained Nanning visible support within homophobic groups such as the National Organization for Marriage (NOM).
Manning was quoted by out comedienne Tammy Peay, whom Manning met in front of his church, as saying “God hates gays, and God hates you.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Finance was moving against Manning for unpaid utility bills, federal tax liens, and city fees, totaling $1.2 million.
The church was ruled in default during a January hearing, and the building was ordered shuttered pending its sale. Pastor Brown, noting that this sum would have to be borne by whoever ultimately purchases the structure, said that bringing her flock to the site would be “lifesaving” and would allow Rivers of Living Waters to “do God’s work from a permanent home”.
At the Ali Forney Center, which hopes to turn the church into a transitional housing facility, Executive Director Carl Siciliano pointed out that “the number one reason our kids are homeless, is the religious beliefs of their parents,” encouraged by pastors like Manning. “Even if not for the Manning angle,” Sicilano says, the site would be “perfect, because it’s just a few blocks from our drop-in center in Harlem”.
Both groups have turned to crowdfunding sources to obtain money to purchase the building. As of yesterday, Ali Forney had raised $175,000 on its website, while Rivers of Living Waters’ GoFundMe campaign has pulled in $24,000.
While Manning’s lawyer, Daniel LoPresti, says “we are taking all necessary legal steps to protect the church from the foreclosure sale of its property”, and a defiant Manning has ridiculed the city’s “politically motivated” attempts to shut him down.
“A million-dollar water bill? Imagine that!” In addition to a possible legal battle, the two LGBT groups trying to buy the edifice also face stiff competition from real-estate developers, who are keen to acquire land in the rapidly gentrifying Harlem section.
“New Harlem is the hottest ticket in Manhattan today,” Drew Piscitelli of Realtors.com, noted. “This is prime property for a new condo or emerging restaurants and retail.”
Rivers of Living Waters is seeking donations at www.gofundme.com/riversnewhome, and Ali Forney is taking gifts at www.aliforneycenter.org.