HOST 1: In 2014, Atlah Church in Harlem began posting words on its marquee like “All Churches that support homos, cursed be thou with cancer,” and “Harlem is a sodomite free zone.” And Atlah’s pastor, James David Manning, has been preaching those words for years.
HOST 2: The church is about a million dollars behind on its bills and next week it is scheduled to be up for foreclosure auction – which Atlah says their non-profit status prohibits. The Ali Forney (Alee FOR-nee) Center for homeless LGBT Youth started a crowdfunding campaign to buy the church, and has already reached its goal.
HOST 1: But that’s not the only group trying to reclaim that space for LGBT people. Erin Golackson spent time with an inclusive church called Rivers of Living Water that’s also trying to buy Atlah.
GOLACKSON: Like a lot of LGBT and gender-nonconforming Christians, Sasha Washington has had some bad experiences in church.
WASHINGTON: I was told that I was a mistake. I’m embarrassing god. A pastor in the bronx told me this. and I ran out of church and turned my back on god for years….
The 29 year old from Brooklyn had been hurt by church, and for years she wasn’t ready to go back. But leaders from Rivers of Living Water reached out to her — and they were persistent.
WASHINGTON: pastor brown and mother tawan, for years when I was homeless and being a bag girl in the village, and they used to come out with sandwiches and pull me to the pier and just talk to me.
Vanessa Brown is the Senior Pastor at Rivers of Living Water, a congregation made of mostly African American, LGBT Christians. She is one of the leaders who helped Washington find God again. Brown says many in her congregation have been hurt by fellow Christians who cite scripture to say homosexuality and gender non-conformity is sin.
BROWN: people need this ministry. When people have problems with theological abuse, problems with emotional and mental abuse—This is the place where people come.
At Rivers, Sasha Washington found stability—and a family.
WASHINGTON: they pull me aside and give me that tough family genuine love, not the shady love, but the genuine love.
But Brown says Rivers of Living Water has been looking for stability too, for nine years.
BROWN: We’ve been moving around like the children of Israel quite frankly.
Rivers hasn’t been able to afford its own space in Upper Manhattan. Instead it has to turn to other churches to share. And those churches don’t always have open doors for a church like Rivers, especially when they learn it’s a largely LGBT congregation.
Justin Lee is the executive Director of Gay Christian Network, which he founded to support LGBT Christians. He says that while a lot of American society have become more accepting of LGBT people
LEE: A lot of christian churches have not only lagged behind but have also become more vocally opposed because they see the culture as moving in the wrong direction. Many of these folks don’t understand a lot about LGBT people, and they’re really concerned about getting doctrine wrong.
GOLACKSON: Rivers of Living Water’s philosophy is that God absolutely does accept them as they are.
BROWN 3: If people could only get past the exterior and look at the heart of person.. because that is what god does for us.
GOLACKSON: Even where Rivers does find a place to rent, space is tight for the congregation of about 200. On Wednesday night, members met in a dark rehearsal space upstairs at United Methodist Church on 86th street.
They’re praying for a space of their own. And for their fundraising campaign to buy Atlah Church.
BROWN: We have 8 more days. We’ve got 25000 or 26,000 so far. We have to find a way to have at least 200,000 to walk into that auction. and then we’ll have 30 days to get the balance.
GOLACKSON: The 1.02 million dollars owed on the building.
BROWN: I have had people tell me to my face, that we can’t do this.
GOLACKSON: It’s a long shot, but Brown says Rivers of Living Water is still going to try at Wednesday’s auction — which Atlah’s pastor claimed on Wednesday may have been postponed..
BROWN: I know that god is probably going to do whatever god is going to do, but I do want to exercise my right to pray.
GOLACKSON: With thousands left to raise, Rivers of Living Water likely won’t win an auction for Atlah’s building. But with the new $25,000 they have now, they’re closer than ever to reaching the promised land—a church to call their own.
Erin Golackson, Columbia Radio News