L.G.B.T. Church Seeks to Buy Building of Harlem Church With Anti-Gay Stance

Correction Appended.

Rivers of Living Water, an Upper West Side church, has been a safe haven for hundreds of predominantly black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians rejected by other churches that believe the Bible prohibits homosexuality.

“You can be free. You can be yourself,” said Nneka Allen of Far Rockaway, Queens, a lesbian who has been worshiping at the church for seven years. “You don’t have to pretend to be someone else.”

But the place where Ms. Allen found spiritual refuge has been seeking a permanent home since its founding in 2007. Now, in a twist, the church is pushing to establish a new home in Harlem, in the building of Atlah Worldwide Missionary Church, well known for its anti-gay stance.

The Atlah church is often condemned in the community for a signboard outside its building that has proclaimed, among other things, that “Jesus would stone homos” and “Harlem is a sodomite free zone.”

The Atlah Worldwide Missionary Church, whose signboard has read: “Harlem is a sodomite free zone.” The Rivers of Living Water hopes to buy the church in the event of a foreclosure. Khaled Sayed / NYT Institute

In December, a New York State Supreme Court justice ruled that the Atlah church be sold at a public foreclosure auction because it owed more than $1 million in city taxes and other outstanding payments. The court ordered a foreclosure auction in February but later halted it. A court hearing is scheduled for June 29.

Rivers of Living Water, anticipating that the foreclosure proceedings will go forward, has already begun raising funds to buy the property. It has other sites in mind in Harlem, where 60 percent of its members reside, but the Atlah property is a priority.

“It would be poetic justice if we could get that space from the anti-L.G.B.T. church and turn it into an inclusive and affirming church,” said Vanessa Brown, the senior pastor and founder of Rivers of Living Water, who is a lesbian. “God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.”

Rivers of Living Water has raised more than $28,000 since January, mostly online through a GoFundMe campaign. Its goal is $1.2 million. If Rivers of Living Water does not get the building, the Rev. Brown said, the money would be used to purchase one that is available. The Harlem-based Ali Forney Center, which provides services to homeless L.G.B.T. young people, some of whom go to the Rev. Brown’s church, is also seeking to purchase the building in the event of foreclosure.

Over the years, the Rev. Brown has rented space from other churches in Harlem and the Bronx for her growing congregation of more than 200 members. The church, which survives on the donations of members, has been holding its Sunday services in the basement of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on the Upper West Side for the past two years at a cost of $3,000 a month.

“I tell everybody that it’s like we’re the children of Israel,” the Rev. Brown said. “We have been moving around. Finding a space has been hard. We’ve been challenged financially. And when some people find out that we’re an affirming church, they don’t want to rent us space.”

James Manning, the pastor of the Atlah church, said he would make the case in court that his institution is tax exempt to stave off any sale of the church. He said that Rivers of Living Water is deceiving donors and that reports that the Atlah church’s property will be auctioned off are bogus.

“I think it’s a scam is what they are doing,” he said. “If they had contact with legal experts, they would know that this building would not be auctioned off.”

James David Manning, Atlah's chief pastor. He said that Rivers of Living Water is deceiving donors and that reports that the Atlah church’s property will be auctioned off are bogus. Khaled Sayed / NYT Institute

Ms. Allen lauded Rivers of Living Water for its community service and believes that it would be able to expand its services if it found a permanent home.

“We’ll be able to help more people in the community, whether feeding the homeless or supporting gay, lesbian or transgender people, to give them a place they can call home,” she said.

The Rev. Brown pledged to keep Rivers of Living Water alive, with or without the purchase.

“Harlem needs us because some of the black churches in Harlem don’t want to have a discussion on homosexuality,” she said. “There’s a sadness when I see other churches turn people out, the sadness when young people kill themselves because they are gay. I have people coming here who live in shelters because they were thrown out.”

Aalia Cox recently made her third visit to Rivers of Living Water. She said that she has been seeking a permanent church where she will be fully welcomed. Ms. Cox, a transgender woman, said that at other churches she visited, members glared at her witheringly.

“I started to feel robbed from my relationship with God,” she said. “During my transition, I was allowing what people were saying to affect me. I know who I serve so the only thing I can do is to let my light shine. Why can’t we all just love each other?”

CORRECTION: June 12, 2016
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of a worshiper at Rivers of Living Water Church. She is Nneka Allen, not Hallen. The article also referred imprecisely to another worshiper’s attendance at the church. Aalia Cox has made three visits to the church; she is not a member.