The virulently anti-LGBT Atlah Worldwide church in Harlem, whose incendiary pastor believes “Jesus would stone homos,” may soon become the victim of one of the most satisfying ironies of all time. An act of legal justice and the generosity of private donors could be aligning to make the controversial house of hate a safe haven for queer people. No, really.
Just twelve days after announcing a fundraising campaign to take over the church, the Ali Forney Center, an organization that offers shelter and other services to homeless and needy LGBT youth, says it has reached its initial $200,000 goal and is confident it will be able to offer a competitive bid at an auction scheduled for later this month.
“I just have such a huge mix of emotions,” says Carl Siciliano, the Center’s founder and executive director. “I’m feeling very hopeful we’ll come to the auction prepared to acquire the building.”
The opportunity to buy the property arose after a state judge reportedly ordered that the church be sold at a public foreclosure auction. According to a listing in the New York Law Journal, the church is roughly $1.02 million in debt. Bidding is expected to begin at that amount on February 24. Atlah’s infamous Reverend James Manning – who takes every opportunity to blare “fags can go to hell!” to his congregation and on camera — has called the campaign to take over the church a “land grab.”
Ever since the Center’s crowdfunding campaign launched on January 29, there has been near-saturation news coverage, ranging from LGBT blogs to international news outlets. And since the jokes basically write themselves, the Daily Show set up interviews with Siciliano and Manning (though the segment has not yet aired). The coverage has helped Ali Forney onto the radar of the big donors and developers Siciliano says will help bridge the gap between the $200,000 they’ve raised through crowdfunding and a competitive bid, which could be well over a million dollars. “We’re doing our homework to try to anticipate what the building could go for at auction,” he adds. “We’re confident we’ll be able to go into the auction with a partner that will allow us to have not just an entry-level bid.”
Siciliano is hopeful that the Center will be favored in the bidding process because the building is historic and the property thus subject to zoning restrictions that would preempt something like luxury towers. But even in the event the building is bought by a developer, the organization has had conversations about renting out space for roughly $30,000 a month — though Siciliano would not say which donors and developers are interested.
Meanwhile, a woman who answered the phone at Atlah this morning said Reverend Manning was not immediately available. His wife, Elizabeth Manning, would comment only that “We don’t plan on selling the church.”
In response to the Center’s efforts to buy the church, James Manning has only ratcheted up the vitriol, suggesting that he would give up the church only when gay men start giving birth. “When you start carrying a baby in your bags and birthin’ that baby through your ass, then you can own this house,” Manning said in a recent video posted to YouTube. “But till I see you pull a baby out your ass, you ain’t gonna pull this church out from underneath of us. And boom shakalaka goes right there! And all you fags can go to hell!”
Siciliano, for his part, has said that while he has “no interest in birthing babies,” the chance to buy the church would be a huge symbolic victory. Atlah’s sign at 123rd Street and Lenox Avenue is a notorious font of anti-LGBT messages like “Harlem is a sodomite free zone” — which, Siciliano notes, only reinforce the religious ideology that alienates many LGBT youths from their families. “It’s something that hurts our kids so much, because that’s what happens in their homes. [It’s] what our kids’ parents tell them,” he says, noting that the church is just a few blocks from Ali Forney’s drop-in center. “If we could acquire the building it would be a real triumph.”
Siciliano says the the church could house eighteen to twenty additional beds and potentially a catering service/café. It’s a far cry from the roughly 200 young people across the city the Ali Forney Center must turn away some nights, but it represents a significant percentage increase from the 107 beds the organization currently offers.
Another LGBT-friendly organization, the Rivers of Living Water church, has also launched a crowdfunding campaign to buy the property but has thus far raised just $24,605 of its $1.2 million goal. Siciliano says he’d be satisfied if that church ended up with the property, but he adds that it’s incredibly rare for neighbors to overcome NIMBY concerns regarding homeless shelters and that he doesn’t want to let this moment slip away. “Frankly, the fact that you’ve got people saying ‘This is what we want’ is a remarkable opportunity to a homeless shelter.” Even so, he says, almost anything is better than Manning. “I look forward to a day when those signs won’t be broadcasting hatred to everyone who walks down Lenox Avenue.”