HARLEM, N.Y. — In the near-decade that Stacy Parker LeMelle has lived across the street from the Atlah Worldwide Missionary Church on Lenox Avenue, she has had to swallow a daily dose of outrage. There — on one of the most important streets in the history of black culture and in the middle of the city where the modern gay rights movement began — it stands: an official letter board sign used to regularly promote racist and homophobic hate.
“Jesus would stone homos,” trumpeted one of the more jarring messages mounted outside the church in recent years, stopping many a passerby cold. “Obama has released the homo demons on the black man. Look out black woman. A white homo may take your man,” read another.
At first LeMelle tried to ignore it, occasionally laughing at the proclamations when they became too much to walk past without yielding to some sort of emotional reaction. Eventually, though, she and her neighbors decided they had seen enough.
“We knew that silence wasn’t an option anymore,” LeMelle told MSNBC in a February interview just blocks away from the Atlah church where, for years, the sign out front served as a vehicle for racially-charged, homophobic rhetoric and conspiracy theories, often about President Obama.
“We would have to do something,” she said.
Determined to channel their anger into a positive cause, LeMelle and her neighbors started raising money in 2014 for the Ali Forney Center, a nearby organization that provides shelter and services to LGBT homeless youth. Now, in an ironic twist of fate, that same organization stands a chance at buying the church building that has for so long embodied discrimination against the very community the Ali Forney Center was created to serve.
Some are calling the potential sale karma. But in the eyes of the Rev. James David Manning, pastor of Atlah and the man behind the violent rhetoric, it’s a witch hunt — and he won’t go down without a fight.
“This is our building,” Manning said from inside the sanctuary of his Baptist church on a recent afternoon, his booming, preacher’s voice laced with the Southern drawl of his native North Carolina. “And it’s not going to go away to the sodomites.”
Despite Manning’s conviction that his outspoken beliefs are what landed his church in hot water, his legal troubles appear rooted in something far less sensational: He hasn’t paid the bills.
It’s a charge Manning himself does not dispute. His argument, which will be considered in state court next week, is that he shouldn’t have to.
“We don’t owe the taxes,” Manning told MSNBC in a wide-ranging interview last February. “We’re tax-exempt. We’re a church, for crying out loud!”
But the law may not be on his side. In December, a New York state Supreme Court justice issued a judgment of foreclosure against the Atlah church, ordering that it be sold at public auction. The official grounds seemed legitimate — the church owes more than $1 million to various creditors, according to a public notice of the foreclosure sale posted by the New York Law Journal. Manning, however, believes that debt had nothing to do with it.
“This foreclosure is a bogus foreclosure inspired by the [New York City Mayor Bill] de Blasio administration, probably prompted by Obama, to finally try to shut up my very strong voice against this wicked and immoral activity of sodomy,” Manning said.
Dressed in an immaculate suit, as is his custom, the 69-year-old pastor cuts a slick figure in person, yet still manages to come across as friendly and unguarded — even while complaining to members of the media about the media’s treatment of him. (To wit, while sitting down to prepare for an interview with MSNBC, Manning accused Fusion of publishing “a hit piece” that day entitled, “Doomsday: This homophobic preacher’s worst nightmare is about to come true.” To be clear, he said, it wasn’t the word “homophobic” that bothered him; it was “doomsday.”)
At least outwardly, Manning doesn’t seem concerned that he could lose his church to an organization that helps LGBT youth.
“I believe that before this building is ever inhabited by any sodomite, homosexual, f***t group, that men will be carrying babies in their balls and giving birth out of their a**holes before this building will be ever used by f*****s, that’s what I believe,” he said. “Now, if that’s possible they can get it. But if it ain’t possible, it ain’t going to happen.”
Constructed in the late nineteenth century, the landmarked building that houses Atlah is a sight to behold. A little cluttered and rundown, perhaps (Manning said they were in the process of renovating); but spacious, nonetheless, with high ceilings and an impressive skylight opening up over the main staircase.
Manning lives there with his wife, along with two homeless families. He became chief pastor in the early 1980s after serving time in prison for armed robbery, and later changed the name of the church — formerly called “Bethelite” — to “Atlah,” an acronym for “All the land anointed holy.”
Atlah isn’t just a place of worship, although the words, “All Jesus, all the time,” mounted on the wall behind the pulpit may suggest otherwise. In addition to its religious services, the church runs a children’s breakfast program on site and functions as a private Christian school. From his second-floor office, which is packed with camera equipment and personal mementos, Manning conducts a three-hour Internet radio program called “The Manning Report” on weekdays. He also broadcasts a weekly worship service, the “Pulpit of Power,” every Saturday morning.
“For the past 30 years, we have been integral to the community,” Manning said.
The exact size of Atlah’s congregation, however, is difficult to pin down. When asked how many members belonged to the church, Manning and his staff became somewhat evasive, sidestepping requests for an estimate both during the interview, and in numerous follow-ups.
At a recent “Pulpit of Power” service, there were approximately 40 people, mostly African-American, in attendance, including about ten children. Seating did not appear to be optional; prior to the service, worshipers were guided to the first few pews, making the house look packed to anyone watching the live stream online (though no one at the church said that was their intention).
There, as in the interview a few weeks prior, Manning was the picture of confidence speaking about the future of his church.
“This is the Lord’s house, and I am the Lord’s servant, and this house will remain open,” he preached, emphasizing the word “Lord” each time.
To listen to Manning speak about gay people as though the last 50 years never happened is, to a certain extent, an exercise in self-control. His views are more extreme than almost any right-wing politician’s; his criticism, almost cartoonish. If his unabashed disgust for any kind of gay relationship didn’t make his detractors want to pull their hair out, it would probably make them want to laugh.
But according to Carl Siciliano, executive director of the Ali Forney Center, Manning’s particular brand of anti-gay bigotry is more pervasive than one might expect.
“When we ask our young people why they were thrown out of their homes, why they were made homeless, the biggest reason they tell us is because of the religious beliefs of their families,” Siciliano told MSNBC. “A lot of the young people that we serve have been called f*****s in their homes, have been told that they’re abominations, have been told that God is against them. And that’s something that is just really painful for them and it’s really painful for those of us who work with them to hear, to see the trauma that they’ve been put through.”
On Jan. 29, shortly after the foreclosure became public, Siciliano launched a crowdfunding campaign with an initial goal of raising $200,000 to buy Atlah at auction. To date, he’s raised over $330,000, and feels confident he’ll be able to find a partner that will help him make a competitive bid.
In practical terms, acquiring the Atlah church would expand the Ali Forney Center’s housing capabilities, giving them space for another 18 to 20 beds. The organization already has 10 different housing sites throughout the city and can fit up to 21 people at its 24-hour drop-in center in Harlem, where kids also have access to meals, vocational training and medical care. But there are still approximately 200 young people a night on the waiting list for one of the Ali Forney Center’s beds.
Siciliano also hopes to launch a catering business in the Atlah space that would be owned and operated by the young people who work with the organization, seeing as many of them have had success finding jobs in the foodservice industry once they get on their feet.
But beyond the tangible impacts, acquiring Atlah would also mark a major symbolic victory.
Steps away from the Atlah church sits Marcus Garvey Park, one of the last places where Ali Forney — the gender-nonconforming person for whom Siciliano named his organization — slept before being murdered at age 22 in 1997. Forced to live on the streets from the age of 13, Forney resorted to sex work and drug use as a means of survival. As he got older, he became an advocate for LGBT rights and HIV prevention, often filling his pockets with condoms that he would hand out to drug dealers.
Forney grew up in a religious family, and Siciliano used to watch him close out talent shows with a gospel hymn at the homeless youth drop-in center where the two met. He remembers Forney often saying: “It doesn’t matter if I’m a man in a dress and a wig. God loves me for who I am.”
Forney’s killing, like those of so many other young LGBT victims, was never solved.
“For this minister to be calling for violence against our community, that’s not a joke to us. That’s very serious,” Siciliano said. “Our young people are frightened all the time of the risk of violence they face on the streets.”
Despite the growing visibility and acceptance of LGBT people in recent years, youth homelessness within that community remains a serious problem. According to a recent brief by the Urban Institute, LGBT people make up just four to 10 percent of the overall youth population in the United States. And yet, they account for 43 percent of the homeless youth population in New York City.
In many cases, the brief says, LGBT kids are thrown out of their homes or run away because their families don’t accept them. Once homeless, they face disproportionate rates of harassment and discrimination in trying to access shelters, while simultaneously dealing with the dangers of street life, such as survival sex and HIV.
But Manning has little sympathy.
“I agree with their parents,” he said of kids who’ve been kicked out of their homes for being LGBT. He compared the situation to parents who throw their kids out for shooting heroin or selling drugs. “If a father comes in and finds that his son is a f*g, he has every right to put him out.”
Manning also has harsh words for Obama, whose election, he believes, was “illegal.”
“I got to tell you, I have friends who could’ve produced a better birth certificate, a fraudulent one, than the one that Obama produced,” he said. “It is an insult to the American people.”
To top it all off, Manning believes that the president is gay.
“He ought to come out the closet, that’s what he ought to do,” said Manning of Obama. “He and Oprah Winfrey too, by the way. They ought to come out the closet. I mean if being a f*g is so wonderful and it’s so loving and it’s such a wonderful person there to be such, why don’t he just admit that he is?”
Asked if he had a message for the Ali Forney Center, Manning didn’t skip a beat: “Go to hell. and do it now. I would tell them to kiss my a** but they might like that.”
Whether Manning will be able to save his church from foreclosure remains to be seen. According to Amy Spitalnick, spokesperson for City Hall, “Atlah Worldwide has not paid a water bill since the late 1980s.”
“That’s the reason for their debt,” she said in a statement to MSNBC, “not the Mayor’s commitment to tolerance and acceptance.”
Manning and his attorney, however, insist Atlah is tax-exempt, including from water and sewage charges. (Not all non-profits qualify for such an exemption even if the organization does not have to pay real estate taxes.)
At least in the immediate future, that defense appears to have paid off. A public auction on the property was originally scheduled for Feb. 24. But just six days before, Manning and his legal team were able to obtain a temporary restraining order against the judgment of foreclosure, pushing back the sale until at least April 21, when there will be a fuller hearing on the matter. (As it happens, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, not de Blasio, was listed as one of the respondents on the brief Atlah’s counsel submitted to obtain the recent stay. That’s because some form of foreclosure proceedings against the church began more than a decade ago.)
Still, Siciliano, for his part, is optimistic.
“Frankly, the longer we have, the more time we have to raise money,” he told MSNBC following the news of Manning’s temporary restraining order. “It’ll help us better assess the value of the property and the price to put on it at auction.”
Many locals who’ve had to deal with the church are also eager to see it go. Darlene Thomas, whose son briefly attended the Atlah school, called news of the foreclosure “the best thing that could ever happen.”
“[Pastor Manning] just was saying things that weren’t appropriate at all,” she said of her time spent at the church. “The way the teachers were basically following him, like worshiping him like he’s Jesus. A lot of things weren’t biblical. It just wasn’t right.”
Nina Rogoff, a social worker who has lived in Harlem for two-and-a-half years, said she was most excited to no longer have to look at the “disgusting and revolting” signs posted on the letter board out front of Atlah.
“Every time I pass by, I feel like I just can’t breathe,” she told MSNBC before picking up her groceries to head south on Lenox, toward the church and the source of her rage.
That winter day, however, the sign’s message was relatively tame. No talk of stoning “homos”; no birther charges against Obama. The side facing north offered simply a political endorsement, albeit one of biblical proportions: “Jesus would endorse Donald Trump.” The south side, a defiant stand: “Fools trying to foreclose us will be defeated.”
For both the election and the church, God only knows what will happen.
Video produced by Drew Katchen.