On the coldest Valentine's Day weekend in Harlem since 1916, Pastor James David Manning had the fires of Hell on his mind. In less than two weeks, his church was due to be foreclosed upon.
“This is a sodomite government land grab,” he told his congregants. Outside, a sign advertising the church‚ a four-story brick and terra cotta building on the corner of W. 123rd St and Lenox Avenue, read JESUS WOULD ENDORSE DONALD TRUMP.
As the chief pastor of Atlah Worldwide Ministries since 1981, Manning is infamous for preaching homophobia and vulgar conspiracy theories—not just from this pulpit in Harlem, livestreamed twice each Saturday on YouTube, but also on his daily internet program “The Manning Report.” Before the recent foreclosure controversy, Atlah Church was probably best known for hosting a mock trial of Barack Obama in which the president was convicted in absentia on 17 counts including treason, fraud and sedition.
Today’s sermon had begun benignly enough. “We thank God for making it back from the ski trip safe and sound,” he said to about 70 worshippers, nearly all of them black women, many of them with young children. His own wife was seated behind him on the altar.
Soon, though, Manning had to address the elephant in the room. Last month, a state judge ordered the building into foreclosure, citing $1.02 million in unpaid taxes. An auction is scheduled to take place on February 24. And in a stroke of divine irony, two LGBT service organizations have launched fundraising campaigns to buy the property. The day of reckoning was getting closer.
In a video message taped this week, a defiant Manning invites all haters and sodomites to celebrate with him when he beats the foreclosure charges.
Manning said he believes the court order is invalid on legal grounds—he says it has to do with water and sewage taxes that should fall under religious exemption rules. But according to public records obtained by the website DNAinfo, there at least nine federal tax liens standing against the church, among other debts, despite $186,000 in tax exemption benefits already granted.
Manning said he believes the case is political retribution for his attacks on Obama, whom he believes is a Taliban-trained terrorist who killed his own grandmother. “They wish to shut me up, cease my ability to amass power and influence,” he said in his sermon. But he pledged to fight: “I will continue to pursue Obama until he’s in prison. And I believe God has given me the power to do that.”
Then Manning apologized to the congregation—he had been deficient before, he said, in describing President Obama’s late mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. “Not only was she a slut, but she was a two-pair-of-dirty-underwear slut,” he said. There were murmurs of amen from the pews. In the third row, a toddler in a three-piece suit played with the rings on his grandmother’s fingers, which she held behind her back as she solemnly bowed her head listening.
With the gay groups raising hundreds of thousands of dollars and foreclosure appearing to be all but ordained, Manning’s homophobia has once again been widely and righteously condemned. (He just taped his third appearance on The Daily Show, in a segment set to air next week.) But gays are just one of the Atlah Church’s enemies. There’s also the de Blasio administration, the CIA, Al Sharpton, and Black Lives Matter, which he calls a money-grabbing farce. Most of all there’s the president. The words sodomite and faggot, two of Manning’s favorite slurs, seem to apply to all. They’re just shorthand for hate.
The prospect of an LGBT group taking over Manning’s building and turning it into a support center has sparked delight among activists across the country. Because if you believe in the powers of charity, tolerance, and cosmic justice, it doesn’t get much holier than that.
The Ali Forney Center, which serves homeless LGBT youth, has raised at least $200,000 toward the purchase of Atlah Church. (Rivers of Living Water, an LGBT spiritual group nearby in Harlem, has raised significantly less money for a separate effort.)
It’s a critically important organization. Of an estimated 1.6 million kids who experience homelessness each year, 40% are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, according to the Williams Institute, a sex and gender research group at the University of California, Los Angeles. One survey of homeless LGBT youth in New York found that about half were black. The most common reason they give for being homeless is rejection by their family, the Williams Institute found. They are more likely to drop out of school due to harassment and bullying. Facing poverty and employment challenges, many of them turn to sex work.
They are victims of disproportionate violence, too. In 1997 the Ali Forney Center’s namesake, a gender nonconforming teen who lived in the city’s shelter system, was shot in the head in Harlem, just 12 blocks away from Atlah. Before he was murdered, Forney would sometimes sleep on the hill in Marcus Garvey Park, just at the end of Atlah’s block. He was known for agitating for police investigations into the deaths of his queer friends.
Today, LGBT youth identify housing as their greatest immediate struggle. A poll of service providers conducted by the True Colors Fund, a support group, found that it was the most commonly cited reason they gave for needing help. The Ali Forney Center provides free assistance to homeless youths between the ages of 16 and 24. In addition to residential facilities, it runs a drop-in center that provides counseling, job placement services, health care, or just a shower for 1,000 young people every year. It’s the largest organization of its kind in the U.S., and since so many of the gay kids who run away from home head for New York, it serves the entire country.
Still, 200 homeless gay and transgender youth are on a waiting list for a bed every night, the group says. Covenant Group, another New York organization that caters to homeless youth, has said it turns away 70 to 80 young people every month due to lack of capacity. Taking over the Atlah Church would allow Ali Forney to put a roof over more heads every night, according to Carl Siciliano, its executive director.
Siciliano has another plan: a catering business. It would be based in the old Atlah building and it would be owned and operated by the homeless youth. This would give them job training and a potential career path. It makes sense. “The food service industry has proven to be the field in which the greatest numbers of our young people have gained employment,” Siciliano wrote in the Huffington Post.
"It would be a beautiful thing,” said Dan Savage, the gay sex advice columnist whose backing of the Forney Center’s fundraising drive gave the effort a boost. “Help buy this church out from under the bigots, and help hand it to people who are taking care of victims of exactly this kind of bigotry.”
About halfway through Manning’s 40-minute sermon, a young man in jeans and a sweatshirt leaned over and whispered into the ear of the reporter sitting next to him.
“You know he’s admitted to being with a man, right?” He nodded his head toward the pastor. “He said when he was in jail, he did stuff.”
The man sitting next to me was Ralei Hunter, 29-year-old proprietor of @gays4trump, a Twitter handle that promotes Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. It was his first visit to Atlah Church, he said, but he had been admiring Manning’s teachings online for the past year. He watches the pastor’s sermons on YouTube and follows him on Twitter.
Hunter is gay, and he lives in the New York City shelter system. He tried to reconcile all of these facts. “He’s right a lot and he’s wrong a lot,” he said of Manning. “That’s how life is.” In fact, Hunter said, he had called the church ahead of time to arrange the visit and to ask one question: If we are encouraged to kill homosexuals, what’s the best way to identify them? It seemed wrong to try to catch them in action in their bedrooms. The person on the phone didn’t have an answer, he said. “Nobody really knows the truth until Jesus comes back.”
After mass was over and a security guard had frisked me thoroughly I got a chance to talk to Pastor Manning alone. We sat down on a bench just a few feet from the altar. In person, Manning is warm and avuncular. Perhaps because he was fasting that day, he came off less like a crusader and more like a weary foot soldier. He didn’t even seem bothered when I asked about that jailhouse sodomy rumor. (In the 1970s, Manning, who is now 68, served time in Florida and New York for robbery, burglary, and other charges.)
“I did think about it,” he said. “But I didn’t lust. I did not lust. That’s an important distinction for you as a reporter to make.” He cited Matthew 5:28: But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. He rather freely admitted to looking, but not with lust. Congregants were filing by, one by one, to kneel at his chair.
Would a homosexual be welcome in his church? Sure, he said. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone is welcome.
Would he consider dropping in on the Ali Forney Center sometime, to see the reality of teen homelessness? No, he said. “They promote sin as a virtue. There’s no point in me trying to make rhyme or reason in that.”
But the real nightmare, in Manning's view, is the government's holy war against him. Manning believes that Obama has failed the black community, and that now the president is trying to shut him up. He said Democrats generally encourage black people to be complacent and dependent on government, and that if Trump were president, he'd help black people by leaving them alone.
“Black people are not going to be equal until they do something that makes them equal,” Manning said. “Civil rights didn’t make black people equal. The first black president didn’t make black people equal. Black Lives Matter is just another farce.” He called the activist network “a money-grabbing, attention grabbing organization that’s going nowhere.”
When it came to the foreclosure, he was defiant. It’s not about the money, he said. Of course he has a million dollars to spare. (This was a repeated laugh line in his sermon.) But there is a principle at stake for him. Think about it, he said: A big bank foreclosing on a black church in Harlem, one of the hottest most rapidly gentrifying real estate markets in the city. A neighborhood where home prices have now passed their pre-recession boom peaks, but not before hundreds of black residents were foreclosed upon. Harlem is predominantly white now, with the smallest black population since the 1920s.
“For them to talk about foreclosing a church in Harlem is just a bad idea,” Manning said. He was confident he’d win the case, and looking forward to a fight. “I hope this goes on for years. I hope it drags on. This will give me the opportunity to get the ear of a lot of people. I think this will lift my voice,” he said. This week he announced a “no foreclosure” party to be held on February 25, the day after the scheduled auction. He invited haters and sodomites to come celebrate with him.
Meanwhile, downtown at the Ali Forney Center, the group had hit its first fundraising goal of $200,000. While Manning was counting on years of controversy and attention, activists had their eye on the auction, which was only days away. Siciliano, the director, says the center has gotten so much attention with its social media campaign #HarlemNoHate that it’s now in talks with undisclosed major donors and real estate groups for potential partnerships. It plans to keep fundraising aggressively until the auction.
Ralei Hunter left before worship was over. On February 25, the day of Atlah’s supposed “no foreclosure” party, he has a court date related to an altercation with his welfare caseworker. After that, he’s taking off for somewhere else, probably New Hampshire. Someplace that votes Trump. How would he feel if Manning got evicted and replaced by a bunch of gays?
“Awesome,” he said. “He’ll be on YouTube still. He’ll be alright.”
Adam Auriemma edits the Justice section at Fusion.