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Reverend Billy Denounces Missionary Position, Gets A Night In Jail

Rabble-rousing preacher plants rainbow flag outside Central Park field hospital run by evangelical homophobes.

Peter Rugh Apr 10

It must have been a strange sight to the police officers guarding the perimeter of Central Park’s East Meadow on Sunday afternoon. The vast expanse of greenery would typically be packed with revelers throwing frisbees or basking in the sun this time of year. These days, however, it is empty, save for a white-tented field hospital set up by followers of Franklin Graham, a fundamentalist Christian who has argued that Islam is “wicked” and “evil” and that homosexuality is a “deepening depravity that now vexes our country.”

The presence of Graham’s organization, Samaritan’s Purse, in what he and his adherents generally regard as a kind of cultural Babylon is part of the new normal in coronavirus New York that its denizens are being told to accept. What must have been strange to the officers on duty was the sight of the man with a blond pompadour in a pink suit carrying a rainbow-colored queer liberation flag who hopped the barricade surrounding East Meadow and began trudging at a steady pace toward the outdoor hospital about 100 feet away. 

“Get out of New York,” he can be heard shouting in video later posted online as he plants the flag twenty paces or so from the white-tents. “We don’t want your racism here.” 

By then the fuzz were on his tail. First one officer, then another. Together they managed to tackle him. 

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” one of the cops asks in the video, pressing the pink-clothed pontificator against the grass and pulling his arms behind his back. Soon a swarm of NYPD arrived to escort their prisoner back the way he came and eventually to the Tombs at the Manhattan Detention Complex where he spent the night. 

Upon his release, William Talen reflected on the heavy-handed reaction to his flag-planting.

“There is a kind of fear there that is more than what you would expect from a regular hospital,” he said over the phone. “You’ve got police everywhere. They [Samaritan’s Purse] must be aware that they’re an invasion force.”

‘A lot of us are sitting around thinking, How could this be happening in New York?’

Talen, who goes by Reverend Billy and happens to have a column in this newspaper, is essentially Graham’s opposite, an activist and performance artist who preaches against the evils of fundamentalism — be it capitalistic or religious. 

While Graham inherited his multimillion-dollar Christian empire from his father, Billy Graham, one of the founders of modern evangelicalism who died in 2018, Talen, together with his partner Savitri D, started an institution of their own, a performance troop and choir that evangelize in support of social justice movements and often invade the marble bank lobbies where corporate sinners can be found. 

“I think it makes more sense to have the Church of Stop Shopping there in East Meadow than Billy Graham,” Talen joked, adapting, as he often does, the cadence of a Bible Belt preacher. “They’ve got the wrong Reverend Billy.”

Franklin Graham “says from the pulpit that LGBTQ people are a perversion, that bathrooms and marriage are to be arranged along heterosexual lines,” Talen added. “He says that Muslims are destined for a lake of hellfire. He’s very promiscuous with his hellfire.”

The NYPD may have confiscated his mask and bandana when they brought him into the Central Park precinct for processing, but they haven’t taken away the activist’s gallows sense of humor.

Still Savitri, who, with a member of the Stop Shopping Choir, handled the protest’s logistics while the couple’s 10-year-old daughter managed the livestream video, said she and Talen took no pleasure in the protest. It was something they felt they had to do. 

Samaritan’s Purse forces all volunteers to sign an anti-queer, transphobic “statement of faith” and is allegedly rejecting qualified medical personnel based upon their sexual orientation. Graham, meanwhile, uses religious exemptions granted by the IRS to hide his seven-figure income from his devotees.  

“Like a lot of us, we’re all bothered by the bigotry in the heart of our city,” says Savitri. “I think a lot of us are sitting around thinking ‘How could this be happening in New York?’ I just say to all of the people who have suffered at the hands of the evangelicals, to all the people who came to New York to escape that, including my husband, including so many of my friends, I’ll do what I can, as I can. And let’s hope other people do too.”

Savitri questions why it was necessary to set up a field hospital in Central Park when New York City has plenty of large buildings sitting empty right now near Mount Sinai Hospital, which is partnering with Samaritan’s Purse, accusing the Boone, North Carolina-based group of using the COVID-19 outbreak for a publicity stunt. 

Central Park is public land but is managed by a private nonprofit whose board includes a slew of corporate executives — and the woman who wrote the theme for Cheers.

Indeed, along with footage of medical staff suited in protective gear gathering in prayer while, to their left and right, COVID-stricken patients breathe through respirators, the Samaritan’s Purse website also features images of the hospital on the covers of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. “Front-page news in New York City,” the caption reads. “Ask God to grant wisdom as our teams speak to media.”

The hospital in East Meadow is a bit of a Bush-Jr.-Iraq-moment for Graham, whose father once remarked of New York, “I sometimes stand in the middle of that great city and wonder if I can ever reach it for God” and who often used its famed locales — Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium, Central Park — for his revival gatherings. As with Iraq, the evangelical organization’s occupation of the park may also prove a disaster for the patients it treats, if not the city — spiritually, at the very least.

Talen warns that the “harried pictures” Samaritan’s Purse is sharing on its website “of people in their coronavirus hazmat suits surrounding dying, intubated people, and holding their hand” suggest that “bully praying,” or forcing someone to pray against their will, is taking place at the field hospital. 

David Reich, Mount Sinai’s president and COO, doesn’t seem too concerned. 

“Any organization that can inspire people to come and put themselves in harm’s way to care for sick people — that’s just a wonderful thing,” he says, standing beside Graham outside the white tents in one of the many propaganda videos Samaritan’s Purse has released since its partnership with the hospital system was announced. 

For Natalie James and other queer rights activists across the city, the park served as the backdrop of a very different kind of wonder last June. 

“Central Park just a few months ago was the site of much activism and a joyous commitment to the ongoing fight for justice for everyone,” remembers James, a co-founder of the Reclaim Pride March, which concluded at the Great Lawn after heading north from the Stonewall Inn to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the queer liberation movement and rekindle some of its rebellious spirit. 

“It was a really wonderful event,” she says. “Now, in the very same Central Park, we now have a bigoted, hateful, right-wing group, preying upon a moment of desperation to invade New York City — historically and traditionally a safe haven for queers and other oppressed minorities.”

The park is public land but is managed by the Central Park Conservancy, a private nonprofit whose board of trustees includes a slew of real estate, hedge fund, banking and advertising executives, as well as Judy Hart Angelo, who wrote the theme music to the eighties sitcoms Cheers and Mr. Belvedere. The Conservancy worked with Mount Sinai, the Parks Department and Mayor Bill de Blasio (who has since expressed concerns about the arrangement) to establish the field hospital.

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine also planned to work with Samaritan’s Purse with the idea of converting its spacious interior into a hospital. Speaking on Democracy Now! on Monday, Bishop Clifton Daniel, the Episcopal cathedral’s dean, said that he, like many New Yorkers, loathes the values of Samaritan’s Purse. Nonetheless, given the direness of the pandemic, he felt obliged to partner with it.  

“I know what Franklin Graham stands for and I am not for what he stands for at all,” Daniel said. “But, at the same time, we’re in the business of saving lives and helping people.” He added: “I think if you’re in the desert dying of thirst and somebody hands you a glass of water, you don’t check their driver’s license. You just say ‘thank you.’ So I said ‘thank you.’”

James says she has a great deal of respect for St. John the Divine as an institution with a long history of fighting for LGBTQ rights, including during the HIV epidemic. She, however, rejects the premise of Daniel’s analogy. 

Read Reverend Billy’s monthly advice column.

“We’re not in a desert,” she said. “We’re in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest country in the world. Certain human rights standards must be upheld. That includes denouncing homophobia, transphobia and Islamophobia. That could be a measure that is very explicitly asked of this group by city officials, as well as by other institutions.”

As of Thursday, Samaritan’s Purse halted preparations for opening a second treatment center at St. John the Divine and began disassembling and removing its equipment from the cathedral. A spokeswoman for the church later told ABC News that the two organizations had come to an “impasse” and that members of the St. John community had “a really hard time” with the group’s stance toward LGBTQ people. The church is exploring other ways it can make use of its space, including serving as a mortuary. 

According to the New York Times, St. John originally reached out to Mount Sinai offering to help, unaware that the hospital system would invite the extremists into its place of worship. A spokesperson for the hospital system cited optimism that the pandemic’s curve is flattening for the withdrawal of equipment from the cathedral.

Talen, 69, in the meantime, is self-quarantining after his stay in the Tombs.

“I’m worried about Billy,” Savitri says. “But obviously, we made a choice, as a family, and I’m hoping his strong body takes care of him.”

I asked Talen if it was worth the risk.

“I did it for the people of the Church of Stop Shopping, people from many different kinds of backgrounds,” he says.”You know, we are together. New Yorkers are together going through a kind of slow-motion 9/11 right now and it’s really rough. We can’t keep being taken advantage of by these haters.”

The Church of Stop Shopping is encouraging people of conscience to place messages of dissent along the perimeter of the field hospital. The NYPD will probably come along and remove them, but readers can take a photo and post it to social media.

Amba Guerguerian contributed reporting to this article.

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