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Good Riddance to Samaritan’s Purse, the Hateful Virus that Infected Central Park

Issue 255.5

Reverend Billy Talen May 4

On April 5, I took part in a peaceful protest. The New York police tackled me and forced my face into the ground.  While this was going on, the people I was protesting, from about 50-feet away, shouted: “We love you!”

During my overnight in jail and then 14-day quarantine, that chat with the we-love-you people rang and rang in my head.  What happened there? I had shouted to them, as I planted a rainbow flag in the grass beside their white tents:  “Get out of New York. We don’t want your racism… and homophobia.”  Then the six police — who seemed to be working for them — led me away. 

This apocalyptic Christian version of frontline caregivers is cast with white people, with a few Asians among the fundamentalists.

My opponents in this cultural showdown were members of a famous, very rich, right-wing evangelical empire, the late Billy Graham’s organization based in North Carolina, “Samaritan’s Purse.” A hospital of theirs popped up in Central Park along with the virus.  Their 14 white tents were pitched there innocently at 99th Street and 5th Avenue for the past several weeks, although something isn’t so innocent about the over-thorough fencing and policing. The hospital personnel who told me how they loved me were sitting at an open-air table at the back entrance to the site, facing our lovely East Meadow.   

These doctors and nurses are certified heterosexuals. They signed a contract promising that they are good, not-gay Christians and opponents of same-sex marriage. The Samaritan’s Purse website shows nurses and doctors in prayer poses, encircling the beds of COVID-19 victims. 

This apocalyptic Christian version of frontline caregivers is cast with white people, with a few Asians among the fundamentalists.  The church’s main speaker, Billy Graham’s son Franklin, hero of Fox News and friend of Trump, declares that LGBTQ folks, same-sex couples, Muslims and raping, drug-dealing immigrants, secularists and socialists — all of us, really — are destined for the “flames of Hell-fire.”  

I’ve been trying to unravel this riddle.  A hate group used the violent forgiveness of the phrase “We love you” against a pink-suited preacher with a little rainbow flag.  This ease of falsehood smacks of Trump.  But I know that this impossible contradiction, with Christian extremists, is a tribal tradition. An all-knowing all-powerful white male god is instructing them to love their fellow humankind, while at the same time insisting that most of us will burn in their special, nonstop eternal fire. 

Photo illustration: Leia-Lee Doran.

A moment of compassion. Graham’s followers are walking around in the world and they want people to stay healthy regardless of their beliefs (so they insist) but they predict a painful eternal death for most people. They have these feelings of saving life and inflicting gruesome torture simultaneously… wow.  Only someone like Philip K Dick or Octavia Butler could write a story that plumbed the depths of people who live this way. And yet these sci-fi creatures from outer space are Trump’s base.  At present, they are our governing type of American.

For many years these fundamentalists have practiced a disengagement from the meaning of what they say. They are okay with Franklin Graham shouting on Sunday morning that gays are evil.  Somehow an alcoholic raging father who beats up his gay son is thought to be disconnected from the hate speech he listened to from the televised, pulpit-pounding preacher. Sons and daughters may feel shamed and trapped and even take their own lives — but this isn’t the haters’ doing, because God, and Graham “love you.” 

Hate and fear make lots of money.  The annual budget of Graham’s portable hospitals is $700 million per year.  This fabulously financed “love” is a virulent strain of consumerism, the cultural arm of capitalism.  A hate-giver like Franklin Graham is selling a most sought-after product: eternal life after death. Or put another way, he’s selling freedom from Hell.  This is a wonderful product to contemplate for your loved one who is suffocating from the virus in a bed in Samaritan’s Purse, surrounded by Christians praying “Please take this soul to paradise, Jesus!”  

Graham’s huckster bro is Donald Trump, who also relishes the impossible fantasy as a sales item. The Coronavirus was supposed to just go away, according to Trump, “like a miracle.” The President endorses Samaritan’s Purse during his virus news conferences. This shouldn’t surprise us.  Billy Graham endorsed Trump’s candidacy in 2015 and brought the mega-churches into line behind the strange guy with the skyscrapers, casinos, beauty contests and the reality show, which features the spectacle of Trump angrily firing humiliated workers.

Franklin delivers hate in a form more raw and direct than his father Billy Graham.  He’s more like Donald Trump, without nuance. But even his father Billy Graham, with his mesmerizing drawl, would say, “We traffic in homosexuality at the peril of our spiritual welfare.  Homosexuality is a sinister form of perversion.”  Reverend Billy Graham, “America’s pastor”, would threaten his Yankee-stadium size audiences with unexpected death and Hell, but in a smooth voice.  “You don’t know what might happen. You might on your way home…”

New York City shows her sophistication over the years by her applied justice, by who she invites and what she protects. 

Samaritan’s Purse is unwelcome here.

We will not let New York be used by death merchants again, as it was by the Sackler family at the Met and the Koch brothers at Lincoln Center. The pandemic-desperate hospitals, the Central Park conservancy, the New York Police Department and the New York Times, with their amazing puff piece, all fell in lockstep with Graham. 

The Reclaim Pride Coalition, with the courageous tradition of ACT UP as spiritual guide, has staged press conferences in front of the hospital.  And with great success.  St. John the Divine was set to share space in its cathedral for extra Samaritan beds, but the coalition walked the bishop back. And on Friday, Samaritan’s Purse announced a full withdrawal from New York.

Graham had hoped to stay in New York by negotiating a merger with Beth Israel, but that plan buckled under a fusillade of LGBTQ fury and electeds who followed the lead of state Sen. Brad Hoylman. Graham did, however, manage to conduct his Easter service from Samaritan’s Purse a week after I was tackled.  He beamed it out live on Fox News, raising millions more for his dramatic missionary adventure in New York, the capital of relativism, feminism and sodomy. He argued that he was being “harassed” by out of control liberals.  (Thank God!)

My sermon here is going too long, but in every paragraph, I should have reminded the reader that this man and his God create violence against the young and vulnerable. When we let this kind of hate group infect our central institutions, we dim the lights of our compassion.  Remember the Clash song “London Calling.” We are calling out to the small towns and the fear-ridden families that we are a safe haven.  We must be that safe place for everyone, as Lady Liberty promises, for those suffering from intolerant fundamentalism, from economic destitution and racist nation-states.    

At 7 p.m. every day, we cheer from our fire escapes, porches and balconies — shouting our gratitude to the frontline caregivers risking their lives as they tend to our sick and dying.  That is the “We Love You!” that is actually true, not some tortured logic intertwined with hate. Shouting this love every evening, something new is coming into our bodies and taking up residence in our hearts. We are honest again. 

We are starting meaning over.  We are starting the culture over.  Consumerism and hard-right Christianity have never been so threatened in the United States. Corporations are hurriedly releasing commercials starring actors in doctor’s costumes, but this is as false as Franklin Graham’s redesign of intolerance as a Hallmark card. The liars can’t stop us. So many of us have lost our lives. The virus stops the bullshit. 

We know that we can’t hate and give care, too. That is a lie.  HATE CAN’T HEAL. 

And we can’t heal with the profit motive. Healing is giving care. And God knows our caregivers are not getting paid much, and sometimes giving their lives. This gift is so strong that we are forever changed. 

Let’s not stop our “We love you.”  

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