The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, an Upper West Side house of worship with a long history of being LGBTQ-friendly, is turning its towering building into an emergency field hospital after its leaders offered the space to the adjacent Mount Sinai Morningside Hospital, as first reported by The New York Times.
But there’s a catch.
Mount Sinai had already partnered with Samaritan’s Purse, an anti-gay organization led by right-wing religious leader Franklin Graham, on the makeshift tent hospital that appeared in Central Park last week. Samaritan’s Purse will also be involved in the field hospital at St. John the Divine, which will have nine tents capable of treating at least 200 people at once. It is not clear whether the hospital, which is intended to relieve a healthcare system that is over capacity during the coronavirus era, would be populated with individuals suffering from that virus. But officials at the church told The Times, in a story that appeared on April 6, that “the way people were talking today” indicated that it would indeed be populated with coronavirus patients.
Isadora Wilkenfeld, manager of the cathedral’s programming and communications, told Gay City News in a lengthy email that the “Cathedral did not enter lightly into this potential agreement” and would “never act or allow the Cathedral’s name to be used in a way that brings harm” to LGBTQ colleagues, neighbors, friends, and congregants.
“In this moment of crisis, however, we are working to do everything in our power to aid victims of the pandemic and the doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel putting themselves in harm’s way to keep us safe,” Wilkenfeld added. “We are fiercely in support of our LGBTQ colleagues… We know the decision to partner with Mount Sinai, and through them, Samaritan’s Purse, is painful to many in the Cathedral community, and we regret that deeply.”
She continued, “The Cathedral is committed to making sure there is no discrimination of any kind during this partnership, and will continue to be a strong advocate for LGBTQ rights now as it has been in the past and will be in the future.”
In an April 3 Facebook post, St. John the Divine hinted at the possibility of turning its space into a hospital but did not elaborate on complete details at the time because the plan had yet to be solidified.
“In response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Cathedral is in conversation with New York City institutions and agencies about providing space for beds and urgent medical care and pledging the use of all Cathedral resources to help support the city throughout this health crisis,” St. John the Divine’s Facebook post stated.
The juxtaposition of Samaritan’s Purse — a conservative nondenominational Christian evangelical humanitarian group — and an LGBTQ-friendly Episcopal church working together is a sign of the dire health crisis that has pummeled the city and strained hospitals throughout the five boroughs. By April 8, nearly 77,000 people had tested positive for coronavirus in New York City alone and more than 140,000 cases were tallied statewide.
In more stable times, the two religious groups would have no reason to partner up. St. John the Divine performs marriages of same-sex couples and has welcomed LGBTQ clergy — a far cry from the actions and rhetoric of Franklin Graham and his Samaritan’s Purse, which requires workers to sign a statement of faith that rejects queer relationships and dismisses the existence of transgender and non-binary people.
“God created man and woman as unique biological persons made to complete each other,” reads the statement on Samaritan’s Purse’s website. “God instituted monogamous marriage between male and female as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one genetic male and one genetic female.”
Volunteers at the Central Park emergency hospital were being asked to agree to that statement of faith and in a March 29 tweet, Graham called for Christian medical professionals to come forward to help in the effort.
Further proof of Samaritan’s Purse’s intentions to use its work to spread homophobia was evident in their 990 tax documents from 2018.
“As a Christian ministry, we believe that marriage, between one man and one woman, was created by God,” the organization stated in those tax documents. “Samaritan’s Purse acknowledges the unique, distinct, and elevated role of marriage and the family, and we desire to affirm God’s design for marriage and the family as it pertains to carrying out our mission and ministry.”
Despite Samaritan’s Purse’s alarming mission, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city and Mount Sinai were reassured by the organization that it would abide by the city’s nondiscriminaton laws. That only came after out gay State Senator Brad Hoylman of Manhattan, in conjunction with out lesbian attorney Roberta Kaplan, on April 1 called for all medical institutions and professions to attest in writing to such a commitment.
“New York City must require every doctor or volunteer working at Graham’s Central Park field hospital — along with anyone providing medical services in a place of public accommodation — to sign a statement affirming their commitment to following New York City’s Human Rights Law,” Hoylman stated.
Wilkenfeld also noted in her email to Gay City News that church officials are working to ensure that all staff and volunteers “are held to the highest degree of non-discriminatory behavior,” and confirmed that Samaritan’s Purse signed a written pledge to treat patients equality.
Patients are expected to begin arriving at the hospital within the coming days.