On Monday, April 13, hard rain and heavy winds whipped the white tents of the emergency COVID-19 field hospital in New York City’s Central Park, swiftly erected weeks before by the international evangelical Christian relief group Samaritan’s Purse (SP) in partnership with the nearby, historically Jewish Mount Sinai Hospital. As of mid-April, the tent hospital, with 68 beds, had treated more than a hundred COVID patients, at least six of whom have died.
But the following sunny morning, the hospital’s medical staff of more than 60 emergency-response volunteers, who work 12-hour shifts, started the day facing not only sick patients but—several yards away, outside the hospitals’ fenced-in area—about 25 (socially distanced) protesters from the LGBTQ rights group Reclaim Pride Coalition holding signs that read “#HealthNotHate” and “Do No Harm.”
And the following sunny morning, April 15, about 10 members of the activist group Rise and Resist, whose ranks include many former ACT UP members from the 1980s and 1990s, were back in the same spot with a similar protest, holding a long rainbow flag that read “Stop The Hate” and a poster declaring “Homophobia Kills.”
“Samaritan’s Purse is not in New York City ... out of concern for New Yorkers,” Rise and Resist said in a press release. “They are here for publicity and to proselytize and profit from the pandemic by positioning themselves as ‘saviors.’ Other organizations such as Doctors Without Borders could offer this service while adhering to the New York City Human Rights Law.”
To be clear, both groups of protesters were not targeting Samaritan’s Purse simply because of its religious orientation, especially as its volunteer health workers risk their lives to treat patients in New York City, the current global epicenter of the COVID crisis, where many hospitals such as Mount Sinai are overwhelmed with patients and lack enough top-level equipment and protective gear.
Their true target was the “Statement of Faith” that Samaritan’s Purse, based in North Carolina, asks volunteers to agree to.
The statement, among its other, more basic tenets of Christian belief, says, “We believe God’s plan for human sexuality is to be expressed only within the context of marriage, that God created man and woman as unique biological persons made to complete each other. 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.”
A Backstory of Bigotry
That is not the only example of discriminatory language emanating from Samaritan’s Purse. Its leader, the Rev. Franklin Graham (son of the legendary, late evangelist Rev. Billy Graham), has over the years made a string of anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim, and pro-Trump pronouncements. Last year, in a Tweet about gay former presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Graham wrote, “The Bible ... defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised, or politicized.” He has also said that Trump’s election victory was “God’s work,” that Islam was “evil” and “wicked,” and that Obama’s “problem is that he was born a Muslim.” Earlier this month, Graham said on Fox News that COVID-19 was happening “because the world turned its back on God.”
On Tuesday, the Reclaim Pride Coalition protesters said they were there to demand that SP, which in 2018 posted a budget of $665 million, drop its “Statement of Faith” requirement, and that New York State, New York City, and Mount Sinai officials monitor the SP hospital closely to make sure that it is abiding by city, state, and Mount Sinai anti-discrimination laws and policies, and that its staffers are not evangelizing to patients.
The protesters also wanted to know why, among all the charitable or private medical-aid groups Mount Sinai could have partnered with, they chose one with discriminatory policies. Only the week prior, New York City’s iconic Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine had canceled plans to let SP open a second field hospital there, unofficially because the liberal cathedral’s staffers had complained about SP’s exclusionary ideology.
“Mayor De Blasio and Governor Cuomo, we need better from you,” declared openly HIV-positive Reclaim Pride Coalition member Jay W. Walker at the April 14 protest. “I find it mystifying that the two of you would align yourselves with organized hatred and bigotry. We are demanding some answers. How was this group ever considered for bringing their hatred and vitriol to this city? Why was Samaritan’s Purse the go-to? Who brought them to the table?”
Today, talking to TheBody, Walker wondered aloud, “Is the hospital the result of explicit or implicit efforts on the part of New York officials to curry favor with evangelical Vice President Mike Pence [who is leading Trump’s COVID-19 response team] in order to secure more federal funding for New York’s COVID crisis?”
Jason Kaplan, a rep for Mount Sinai, said in reply on a phone call, “That’s the first time I’ve heard that [suspicion]. People have a right to be concerned, but there’s nothing more here than Sinai being beyond capacity and needing an additional hospital.”
Kaitlyn Lahm, a rep for SP, said in an email, “Prior to establishing an emergency field hospital in New York, we were in touch with federal, state, and local officials. That is to be expected with this kind of endeavor in a pandemic situation.” She did not reply to the question of what the conversations were about.
Kaplan also stressed that LGBTQ or religious discrimination of any sort was against not only Mount Sinai policy but city and state law, and that to Mount Sinai’s knowledge, it was not occurring at the tent hospital. He said he did not know who initiated the Sinai-SP partnership or how it came to be.
On April 14, Mt. Sinai told New York lawmakers, some of whom had expressed concern about SP's policies in a public letter to Governor Cuomo and Mt. Sinai leadership, that it would start making those who work in NYC for SP sign a second pledge to not discriminate against patients. And later in the week, Rise and Resist began asking city LGBTQ and other nonprofits to sign on to a letter to the City Council urging that it demand that Samaritan’s Purse pledge that it would respect NYC’s Human Rights Law, which forbids anti-LGBTQ discrimination, for the duration of their stay in the city.
This announcement came shortly after Graham posted on Facebook that his workers in New York City were being harassed by LGBT activists, writing, “It seems tone-deaf to be attacking our religious conviction about marriage at the very moment thousands of New Yorkers are fighting for their lives and dozens of Samaritan’s Purse workers are placing their lives at risk to provide critical medical care.”
To that point, Reclaim Pride Coalition member Ann Northrop, on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network cable Gay USA news show that she has long hosted with fellow activist Andy Humm, said, “We had debates within RPC ... about how this would be received by people who would say, ‘Look, we’re in the middle of a pandemic and [SP is] coming to provide medical aid. Now is not the time to go after them for their bigotry.’ But the fact is that now is the time, because they’re opportunistically taking advantage of this absolute disaster to advertise themselves and their right-wing ideology.”
Who Must Sign the Statement?
Kaitlyn Lahm, a rep for SP, said in a phone call that, with the exception of some New Yorkers who volunteered to help erect the hospital and were not asked sign the SP “Statement of Faith,” the site was staffed entirely by SP’s preexisting medical volunteer corps, who presumably previously signed the statement of faith. A section about the New York City tent hospital on SP’s volunteer page was removed, she said, once SP realized that the site was sufficiently staffed.
Thus, it’s not clear how many potential volunteers have been turned away for refusing to sign the statement of faith. At least two have claimed to be among them. One is James Finn, a gay man in Michigan who posed as a doctor eager to come to New York to help SP. In a Medium piece, he claims that, on a phone call, an SP staffer named Suzanne appeared delighted to sign him up—until he revealed that he was both Christian and gay, and would not sign the statement. He claims that she then said, “I’m sorry, sir,” and “I wish you luck volunteering elsewhere,” before hanging up.
Additionally, openly gay and New Yorker Timothy Lunceford-Stevens, 62, claims that he filled out SP’s volunteer form but did not sign the statement of faith. The next day, he says, he got an email from SP saying that they liked his credentials and were going to get back to him. But they never did, he says, which he takes as a rejection because he did not sign the statement.
Lunceford-Stevens, who recounted the above at the April 14 Reclaim Pride Coalition protest, says that he was not just testing SP’s policy—he really would have worked for them if they’d have accepted him, “even if it was just filling up water bottles.” (He says he has volunteered in medical settings but does not have a medical degree or true medical background.)
Longstanding Tensions, Unanswered Questions
This is not the first time the LGBTQ and HIV communities have rallied against what it perceives as threats from Christian evangelicals. In 1983, the Rev. Jerry Falwell said on TV, “AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals. To oppose it would be like an Israelite jumping in the Red Sea to save one of Pharaoh’s charioteers. AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals. It is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.”
After 9/11, Falwell and fellow evangelical Pat Robertson said that the attacks were God’s punishment of a country that condoned abortion, feminism, secularism, and homosexuality, among other things.
In the face of the controversy, Franklin Graham, who conducted an Easter service in front of the tent hospital that was broadcast by Fox News, has doubled down on his group’s statement of faith requirement, telling The Charlotte Observer:
“All of our doctors and nurses and staff, [they’re] Christians,” he said. “We believe it’s very important that—as we serve people and help people—we do it in Jesus’ name. ...
“Of course, I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. That’s part of who we are. So we have a long list of things we want people to understand and agree with before we take them to work with us. I don’t want a person who is going to be on the job and drinks; that’s not a good witness. I don’t want a person who’s going to be using drugs to be part of our team. I don’t want someone who’s going to be swearing to be part of our team. I don’t want someone who is trying to pick up girls, and using this as an opportunity to do those kinds of things.
“So, we try to screen the people that work with us. And we want men and women who believe the way we do and have the same core values that we have.”
To that, longtime New York LGBTQ activist Andy Humm replied on Gay USA, “And we don’t want bigots serving us in New York.”
He also added: “There’s a strong suspicion that Mount Sinai, Cuomo, and De Blasio acceded to this to please Trump and to get the things they were trying to get out of the federal government—protection, medical equipment, research money. Someone is going to reveal this down the road, because why would you pick up this group, given all the groups that could’ve run a field hospital? Why couldn’t they ask the KKK? And I mean that sincerely. They believe in a lot of the same things that Frank Graham does—and they have the masks and gowns.”