Earlier this year, the interwebs were abuzz with news that ATLAH, a Harlem-based church notorious for its hateful anti-LGBT messages spewed across its front yard, was going to be sold at a public foreclosure auction because of unpaid debts totaling $1.02 million. Divine intervention?
The auction has since been delayed to an April 21 court hearing. In the meantime, two local groups, the Ali Forney Center and Rivers of Living Water Ministries, have launched fundraising campaigns to purchase and repurpose the property.
“We hope to acquire the building to provide housing for homeless LGBT youth as well as a space to launch a business run by our young people,” says Carl Siciliano, Ali Forney Center Executive Director, on the org’s website.
So far the group has raised over $330,00 from over 3,000 donors.
Rivers of Living Water Ministries, on the other hand, a primarily self-funded faith and advocacy organization, is the underdog in these efforts — with just over $27,000 in donations from over 200 people. But don’t underestimate their fight or their might.
Founded by Pastor Vanessa Brown, an out Harlem native, since 2007 Rivers of Living Water Ministries has become a place of refuge for Black LGBTQ Christians, their families, and their allies.
“I founded the church because I felt like the LGBTQ community needed a place that was safe from spiritual violence,” Pastor Brown tells ELIXHER. “A place that was safe to be their authentic selves and a place to homogenize their spirituality with their sexuality.”
It was hard for Brown to find LGBTQ inclusive places of worship that resonated with her Baptist/Methodist/Pentecostal church experience (most were more Episcopal in nature). Rivers Ministries is rooted in “our own flavor,” she explains, referring to African and African American religious traditions.
The church is also deeply committed to serving the community. Rivers runs a food pantry that feeds the homeless, offers mental health services for those in need, and provides support around Medicaid. They also have an HIV/AIDS ministry, which is in its seventh year of funding with the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, and offer testing, educational and preventive measures.
But it’s a church without a home.
With over 150 consistent church-goers and serving anywhere from 300 – 500 community members on a monthly basis with its social services, Rivers has been searching for a permanent space for over nine years.
“We’ve been moving around like the children of Israel,” adds Pastor Brown.
With the support of community groups such as Harlem Pride, the Community Board 10, and key gatekeepers of the Harlem community, they are on a mission to reclaim ATLAH and “transform a place of hate into one of love and light.”
“My fiancée and I don’t compromise our visibility for [other people’s] comfort,” Sydney Magruder, a Black queer woman of faith who lives directly across from ATLAH, tells ELIXHER. The church’s hateful signs are in clear view from their living room window.
“We walk about with our puppy, holding hands, sneaking kisses, greeting neighbors, all within full view of the congregants who claim to worship the same God we acknowledge as Heavenly Father,” she says. “Their idiocy would be comical if it weren’t so harmful to the just and peaceful world we want to craft.”
“This is not just about having a church building,” Pastor Brown adds. “We want to put an end to spiritual violence.”
And Harlem, what Brown refers to as “the Black epicenter of America,” is the perfect place to start.