Atlah Church / Stoneybutter

February 25, 2016; New York Times

A controversial Harlem church known for its homophobic sermons inside and hate-filled billboards outside has been teetering on the brink of foreclosure. Last year, a state judge ordered Atlah Worldwide Church to be sold at a public foreclosure auction after racking up over $1 million in unpaid bills and fines. One unpaid bill was so large the debt was sold on the open market.

Rev. James Manning, who once claimed to Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams that Starbucks is somehow to blame for all that is wrong because they “put semen in all of their lattes,” is hardly uncontroversial. He causes outrage among the church’s immediate neighbors and other churches, some of which are hardly pulling for him.

“We believe it would be divine justice,” Vanessa Brown, the pastor of Rivers of Living Water, said, for an “affirming church to replace what has been an epicenter of gay hate, and transform it into a center of love and light.”

That would be a change for the church. “Jesus was not about all of this love that people say,” Manning is reported to have said in an interview. “Jesus is the only one in the Bible speaking about sending anyone to hell. This business from the sodomites, about love and forgiveness, is twisting of the Scripture.”

In one of his more lucid claims, Manning told DNAinfo New York that the foreclosure of Atlah was mostly over unpaid water and sewage bills and vowed to fight the order, claiming his church’s tax-exempt status meant he didn’t have to pay. “I assure you, it’s about a water bill and a tax that can’t be levied against this church,” Manning said. “I think it’s a land grab, quite frankly.”

He might have a point, and in April, he will get a chance to argue just that. Religious groups and nonprofits are, in fact, eligible for an exemption from New York City water and sewer bills after applying to the Department of Environmental Protection. Manning has applied and been turned down five times since 1991 because the building, which contains some apartments, is not wholly used for religious activities. (NPQ readers may want to consider the connection between this and the ongoing story about the taxability of New Jersey hospitals.) The DEP suggested that the church meter areas separately, but this has not occurred.

The foreclosure auction, which had been set for Wednesday, February 24th, has been delayed due to a temporary restraining order granted by New York State Supreme Court. The restraining order is in effect until a hearing on April 21st.

At least two local nonprofits that are LGBT-friendly have used the ruckus created by the foreclosure and Manning to rally supporters for expansion of their own missions. Carl Siciliano, executive director of the Ali Forney Center, has rallied donors to help the LGBT youth homeless shelter buy the church, enabling the center to grow and no doubt deliver a little bit of divine justice along with additional services. After the launch of the #HarlemNoHate campaign, over 3,000 individuals have donated $315,000 since January 29th to assist the nonprofit in purchasing the building. Now, with the restraining order halting the auction, the Ali Forney Center has obtained the pro bono services of Winston & Strawn to help with all areas of the acquisition, including assessing the condition of the building and, if they want, making a bid for it should it come up for auction after the April hearing.

Using Twitter tweets linking to a series of messages on the center’s website, Siciliano has been very transparent that should they not be able to acquire the property, the funds will be used for expansion and programs at other sites. No doubt, by being so open and forthcoming about the twists, turns, and uncertainty about where the donor’s money could end up, Siciliano has saved his future self some headaches. He also publicly welcomed the delay which would allow for additional fundraising and planning stating, “While we urgently desire to see Atlah church cease their messages of hatred and incitements of violence against the LGBT community, especially in light of the safety of the young people we serve several blocks from the church, we welcomed the delay.”

Even if the April hearing goes in Manning’s favor, he still might not be able to keep the church afloat. What DNAinfo found Manning didn’t say during his interview with them is that there are nine federal tax liens against him totaling more than $355,000 from as far back as 2002. He also owes New York State more than $28,000 and other creditors more than $30,000, public records show. According to city records, the Internal Revenue Service released a federal lien against Manning in 2006 and the Bank of New York Mellon was assigned that lien in 2010.

If all liens would need to be settled by the purchaser if the foreclosure auction goes through, and the federal IRS debt would supersede all other debt, this means that Bank of New York Mellon has been waiting for this implosion since 2010, and they probably aren’t planning to build a homeless youth drop-in center.—Carrie Collins-Fadell