Reclaim Pride Protests Samaritan’s Purse at Central Park

Furious queer New Yorkers, led by the Reclaim Pride Coalition (RPC) and longtime AIDS activists from ACT UP, huddled near the pop-up hospitals in Central Park on April 14 to protest Samaritan’s Purse and blast political leaders for allowing Franklin Graham’s right-wing organization to barge into the city and require workers to sign an anti-LGBTQ Statement of Faith.

And the demonstration and related public pressure appear to have helped: On the same day, The New York Times reported that Mount Sinai told state lawmakers that it would require individuals working for Samaritan’s Purse to sign a pledge committing not to discriminate against patients. Out gay State Senator Brad Hoylman, who represents the neighborhood bordering Central Park to the west, had called for such reassurance for weeks. (In the same article, Graham was quoted complaining that he was being “harassed” by elected officials and others.)

The controversy surrounding Samaritan’s Purse blew up late last month when the organization announced it would be working with Mount Sinai Hospital to run field hospitals in Central Park’s East Meadow. Locals directed their outrage at Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio after it was revealed that Samaritan’s Purse required its workers and volunteers to sign a Statement of Faith that not only is homophobic but also targets non-binary and transgender folks.

“…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.”

Protestors on April 14 pointed to the experience of individuals who have unsuccessfully sought to volunteer with Samaritan’s Purse. Timothy Lunceford-Stevens told RPC that he was turned away as a potential volunteer on April 5 because he refused to agree to the Statement of Faith.

“When they heard my qualifications and experience, they said they’d love to have me join them,” Lunceford-Stevens said. “But when I got to the end of the interview process, they told me I’d have to agree to their Statement of Faith. I told them that I was eager to do the work, even though I knew we had disagreements, but that I could not sign a Statement of Faith that is homophobic [and] transphobic… They then rejected my application, with no further communication.”

In response to the incident, Lunceford-Stevens went on to file a complaint with the city Human Rights Commission.

Jay W. Walker, a longtime LGBTQ and HIV/ AIDS activist who has been involved with a number of advocacy groups including Gays Against Guns, RPC, and Rise and Resist, read a statement on behalf of Gregg Gonsalves, a Yale epidemiologist and ACT UP veteran. In his remarks, Gonsalves invoked the undeniably tricky balance between addressing the emergency healthcare needs of New Yorkers and maintaining the city’s culture of non-discrimination.

“My friend and fellow AIDS activist Peter Staley once said, regarding drug company donations, that he’d take money from the devil if it would save his life and the lives of his friends,” Gonsalves explained in his prepared remarks. “If Franklin Graham and Samaritans’ Purse want to provide health services in the city during COVID-19, I say the same thing: I’d take healthcare from the devil if it would save the lives of New Yorkers.”

However, Gonsalves added, “Franklin Graham may be offering charity to New York City today, but he also peddles homophobia and other hatreds that belie the notion that he follows the most important commandments of his religion: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Samaritans’ Purse uses charity as a cudgel for proselytizing, for coercing those who work with them, asking them to sign a Statement of Faith that denigrates other religions and targets LGBT communities for hatred and violence. So while they are providing medical care in New York City, it is important not to forget that they are a radical right-wing religious organization with their own political agenda.”

Walker himself focused on asking blunt questions to the governor and mayor: How, he asked, was Samaritan’s Purse even considered when other organizations nearby could have provided field hospitals?

“Why was Samaritan’s Purse the go-to? Who brought them to the table? New Yorkers need to know before we find out that the KKK has been brought in to start beautifying our highways, as they do in parts of the South,” Walker exclaimed. “Frankly, next pandemic, maybe our elected officials will bring them in to run a field hospital. They have lots of masks and gowns.”

In a written statement, Steven Thrasher, a journalist and scholar on LGBTQ health at Northwestern University, called on the city to make sure Samaritan’s Purse does “not evangelize in the hospital” and said there are three key reasons why he is “particularly worried about the Samaritans causing harm to LGBTQ people.”

First, he said, queer and trans people, especially Black and Latinx folks, are disproportionately affected by HIV/ AIDS and other co-morbidities and thereforce could face increased risk of severe complications; second, he said research has shown that LGBTQ people who face discrimination experience that discrimination, in part, in the form of health disparities; and third, queer folks are more likely to be incarcerated, which puts them at increased risk of infection in crowded jail facilities.

Terri Wilder, a social worker and advocate who has worked on LGBTQ and HIV/ AIDS issues since 1989, expressed her anger toward Mount Sinai, where she said she worked for eight years. She blasted the hospital for sending an email to staff on March 31 acknowledging the concerns about its partnership with Samaritan’s Purse.

“Yet,” she said, the hospital “still agreed to partner with them.”

Wilder added, “I’m angry that the memo stated that Mount Sinai is clear on their record on human rights, yet still chose to partner with an organization whose leader has a long history of making absolutely horrifying statements about the LGBTQ Community. I’m angry that Dr. David Reich, the president of Mount Sinai Hospital and a gay man, agreed to this partnership.”

Wilder cited numerous examples of those who have been killed due to anti-LGBTQ attacks before concluding with a series of questions directed to Mount Sinai.

“So, are LGBTQ people only valued and provided a safe space to receive medical care when there isn’t a global pandemic like COVID-19 happening?,” she aksed. “Will you turn against the LGBTQ community the next time something like this happens? I’m angry and you should be ashamed of yourself.”

Following the demonstration, participants faced the nearby field hospital tents and chanted, “health not hate.”

Ultimately, RPC presented four demands: Samaritan’s Purse drop its requirement for employees and volunteers to sign its Statement of Faith; the city Human Rights Commission investigate Samaritan’s Purse’s hiring policies; Cuomo, de Blasio, and Mount Sinai publish their plans to monitor Samaritan’s Purse; and the governor’s office and mayor’s office publicize whether Samaritan’s Purse is receiving public dollars and disclose who approved their the Central Park facility.

The negative publicity swirling around Samaritan’s Purse has already affected the humanitarian group’s plans to expand its New York City operations during the pandemic. The organization was slated to open another emergency field hospital at the LGBTQ-friendly Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on the Upper West Side, but public pressure forced the church to abandon the proposal.

In a written response to Mount Sinai’s commitment this week that Samaritan’s Purse staff would attest to the obligations of city human rights law, Hoylman said, “When a group with a leader like Franklin Graham, who has a long and sordid history of homophobia, offers to provide assistance to New Yorkers, it’s government’s responsibility to ensure he follows our civil rights laws. With Graham’s record of hateful comments, requiring his organization to treat LGBTQ people with dignity and respect isn’t harassment — it’s the law. I’m glad that Mount Sinai has agreed to require the workers of Samaritan’s Purse to sign a statement confirming their understanding of our human rights laws protecting LGBTQ New Yorkers from discrimination.”