Harlem Church's Anti-Gay Sign Inspires 'Act of Love' Response
HARLEM — In the seven years Stacy Parker Le Melle has lived across the street from Atlah Worldwide Church, she's had a bird's-eye view of the inflammatory messages posted on the church's sign.
In February, for example, the church on 123rd Street and Lenox Avenue posted a sign saying that President Barack Obama had unleashed white gay "demons" against black men.
"Look out black woman," the sign read.
Le Melle said she and her neighbors initially chose to ignore the signs to prevent giving the church more attention. A church next door posted its own sign telling the public it wasn't associated with Atlah.
But when Atlah posted another message in March saying "Jesus Would Stone Homos," with several scriptures listed as support, Le Melle had had enough.
"The idea that you would advocate for public murder is too much," she said. "The people that Atlah is denigrating are our friends and our families. They are us."
Le Melle took to the parent listserve Harlem4Kids looking for ideas on how to fight back. One parent suggested a fundraiser for the Ali Forney Center, which serves LGBT homeless youth and has a drop-in center on 125th Street in Harlem.
The center is named in honor of Forney, a transgender young man who was found shot dead on Dec. 5, 1997, in front of a public housing project on East 131st Street.
After talking to Forney Center executive director Carl Siciliano, Le Melle learned that religious-based rejection of their sexuality is the most frequent reason teens cite for being estranged from their families.
"Any message from religious leaders expressing hatred and rejection of LGBT people is incendiary and puts LGBT people at risk," said Siciliano, who added the sign was even more shocking in light of August's brutal beating death of transgender woman Islan Nettles.
"For that to have gone up in a neighborhood where six months earlier someone was beaten to death is grotesque," he added. "That sign is three blocks from our drop-off center. I don't want our kids to have to walk by and see that."
Given that he believes Atlah pastor James David Manning is "a marginal character with minimal influence," the fundraiser is an appropriate response to Atlah's hateful signs, he said.
"They are responding to an ugly message of hate and intolerance with a compassionate act of love," said Siciliano, who said the money will help the nonprofit deal with funding cuts.
Manning was traveling and not immediately available for comment, his staff said. But he has seemingly replied to the criticism with his church's sign.
One side of the sign said that the "spirit" responsible for the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama during the civil rights movement, killing four girls, has "moved in Harlem and assailed our church."
The other side of the sign read in part: "Harlem is a Sodomite free zone."
Law enforcement officials have told people who complained that the language on the sign is protected under the First Amendment. Someone vandalized the church by removing the lettering and spray painting "God is Gay" in March — police are investigating that as a hate crime.
Le Melle said she sees the sign itself as "inciteful hate speech."
Those walking past the church last week were shocked at the sign.
"What's wrong with this church?" asked one woman who declined to give her name.
The fundraiser "No Time for Hate" had raised $695 more than its $10,000 goal from 178 contributors as of 8 a.m. Tuesday. It hopes to surpass that with a fundraiser Tuesday evening at Maysles Cinema. More than a dozen Harlem businesses have donated their services to the event.
"If we don't step up and say we don't agree then it becomes tacit approval," said Le Melle. "We will keep talking and let him know there is a large community here that does not agree with him."
No Time for Hate: A Benefit Night for the Ali Forney Center at Maysles Cinema, at 343 Lenox Avenue between 127th and 128th streets, will take place from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. May 20.