The scene in New York City’s Central Park was a snapshot of the nation’s cultural and religious divide.
On Tuesday, a group of LGBTQ activists stood several yards away from the Samaritan’s Purse field hospital on the East Meadow lawn and blasted city and state officials and Mount Sinai Hospital for partnering with the evangelical humanitarian relief organization treating overflow patients suffering from the coronavirus.
Activists with the Reclaim Pride Coalition holding signs saying “help not hate” called out New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the leadership of Mount Sinai just across the park, for allowing the organization headed by evangelist Franklin Graham to treat New Yorkers while adhering to an anti-gay statement of faith.
“How was this group ever considered to bring their hatred and their vitriol into our city at a time of crisis when our people are fighting a pandemic?” asked Jay W. Walker, an activist with the Reclaim Pride Coalition.
The LGBTQ coalition is the latest in a series of barbs aimed at Samaritan’s Purse since it opened a 68-bed field hospital in Central Park two weeks ago. The conflict pits the country’s growing acceptance of LGBTQ rights with the conservative values of a premier evangelical relief organization.
The hospital is staffed with Christian doctors and nurses experienced in treating infectious diseases. But Samaritan Purse's policies require most contractors and some full-time volunteers to sign a statement of faith that includes a declaration that “we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one genetic male and one genetic female.”
Graham, president and CEO of the charity is a controversial figure. A vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, he has filled the airwaves with condemnations of gays and lesbians and Muslim Americans, among others.
He has also repeated that the field hospital does not discriminate in who it treats.
“We provide our services to everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation,” Graham told Religion News Service. “We don’t discriminate. Period.”
Samaritan’s Purse has played a high-profile role in past health crises, such as the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Earlier this year, it set up a field hospital to treat Italians suffering from the coronavirus.
New York City is one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world, a liberal metropolis with broad anti-discrimination provisions in employment, housing and public accommodations. It is also the epicenter of the coronavirus, with more than 10,000 deaths and nearly 200,000 infections.
Mount Sinai Hospital, on New York’s Fifth Avenue, partnered with Samaritan’s Purse as a way to relieve the overstretched hospital system grappling with a shortage of hospital beds and equipment. Mount Sinai does not oversee the field hospital.
As of Tuesday, Samaritan’s Purse has treated 119 patients at its field hospital. A total of 51 patients are now hospitalized there, including five in its ICU; 44 patients have been discharged, spokesperson Kaitlyn Lahm said.
But once word got out about the evangelical group’s statement of faith, objections began to mount.
De Blasio, a champion of LGBTQ rights, was immediately pressed to ensure the relief organization was “truly consistent with the values and the laws in New York City.”
The city’s attorney general issued a news release assuring New Yorkers her office would “remain vigilant to ensure discrimination does not occur.”
That hasn’t stopped the growing chorus of dissent. One LGBTQ activist, A. Timothy Lunceford-Stevens, said he has filed a complaint with the city’s Human Rights Commission after he tried to volunteer at the field hospital but was turned away because he refused to sign the statement of faith.
Mount Sinai was prepared to expand the number of field hospital extensions earlier this month when it asked Samaritan’s Purse to extend help at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, on the West Side.
But The New York Times reported that plans to turn the cathedral into a field hospital were abruptly shelved, in part because the cathedral, affiliated with the Episcopal Church, did not realize that Samaritan’s Purse would be involved in the project.
The Episcopal Church, unlike Samaritan Purse, is the leading mainline denomination supporting LGBTQ people, the first in the United States to ordain an openly gay bishop and one of the leaders in special liturgies to marry LGBTQ people.
The scuttled plans for the cathedral hospital may also have fallen apart because of the slowing rate of hospitalizations.
The Central Park field hospital is the first Samaritan’s Purse has deployed in the United States. It set up a hospital in Cremona, Italy, in the hard-hit Lombardy region.
The first field hospital set up by Samaritan’s Purse was deployed in 2016 in response to the earthquake in Ecuador. The organization also set up an emergency field hospital about 12 miles from Mosul, Iraq, during the 2016-17 battle for the city. Last year, it installed a field hospital in the Bahamas in response to Hurricane Dorian.