On a rainy Sunday morning in mid-September, passersby stopped dead in their tracks to read the messages posted to the hexagonal sign outside the ATLAH Worldwide Missionary Church on 36 West 123rd Street in Harlem. On one side: "WHEN THE HOMOS BULLIED THE POOR AND NEEDY IN SODOM LIKE THEY DO IN HARLEM JESUS FIRE & BRIM - STONED THEM." On the other: "ATLAH CALLS FOR HOMICIDE INDICTMENT FOR ERIC GARNER. ATLAH DEMANDS RECALL OF DE BLASIO. HE WAS SLAPPED BY SHARPTON INSULTS ALL NYC." A large cross, reading "JESUS IS LORD" stood on top of the sign, reaching the second story windows of the red-bricked building.
The message was the work of pastor James David Manning, who runs the establishment. After getting out of prison in 1978 where he did time for armed robbery, Manning visited the church — then called “Bethelite” and run by Reverend Millar Alexander Stanley — with his older sister. It won him over, and in 1981, he succeeded Stanley, and rebranded it “ATLAH,” which stands for "All the Land Anointed Holy."
Though Manning has always believed homosexuality to be a sin, it wasn’t until after president Barack Obama was elected in 2008 that he began posting signs out front with his controversial opinions, like: "JESUS IS TRUE. OBAMA IS EVIL. HE USED BLACK VOTE TO UNCLE TOM FOR WALL ST. I SPEAK LOVE AND TRUTH.” The personal nature of many of the attacks against Obama have led Manning’s neighbors to believe he has an unhealthy, personal obsession with the president.
Manning's antics have earned him inches in print and occasional spots on television. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they have also made him a target. In March this year, vandals got past the iron fence and ornate chrome gates that surround ATLAH and spray painted "GOD IS GAY" on Manning's sign. He responded by declaring: "Gay people are just outright bullies."
Inside ATLAH, where there are few windows and hardly any lights, it is easy to lose track of time. In a windowless waiting room which is furnished like a Sunday school classroom, with desks and a peeling linoleum floor, a basketball-sized television sticks out from the wall, displaying grainy security footage of the main entrance. As I waited to speak to Manning, a cleaning woman poked her head out from one of the adjacent rooms to peer at me. She smiled and whispered, "Are you the girl who was here on Sunday, ringing the bell?" (I was.)
Manning is a broad man with salt and pepper hair, a receding hairline, and rimless glasses. He dresses tackily, in double breasted blazers, two-tone dress shirts, and gold ties. His office is a makeshift television studio. It is a tiny space — with a large desk, the color of a summer cherry, several professional lights, a camera, his two staff members who record his sermons, and two chairs for guests. There is almost no room to walk.
Despite all the visual cues which might suggest otherwise, Manning was adamant that he was not trying to promote himself. The signs, he said, were designed to inform people in the neighborhood — not to get him press. The online videos he makes, he assured, were just to get his message out.
Manning agreed with his local critics that his hatred for Obama is personal.
Obama’s election, Manning charged, was inherently racist, because “I felt that a number of people were voting for him, simply, because he was alleged to be black.” (Manning does not believe biracial people should be categorized as black.) “That, I thought, was racism, and a throwback for America, to simply vote for a man because of the color of his skin.” Besides not being black, Manning also thinks Obama is not really an American, but was born in Kenya.
All of that considered, Manning’s biggest problem with Obama is his sexuality.
Asked about Obama’s support for the LGBT community, Manning casually blurted out: “Obama’s been a homosexual all of his life.” Manning said he was certain this was true because “I’ve got absolute proof. I’ve got a person who grew up with him in Hawaii who stated that she knew that he hung out with old, white men and did sexual favors with them for drugs.”
Manning said he is so against homosexuality because science: “Everything in the universe condemns homosexuality. Everything in the known universe...There’s opposites in the universe. There’s light, there’s dark. There’s moon, there’s suns around it. There’s planets and there’s galaxies. The same basic physics principles that exist here on earth exist in the universe. You have the atom, which has the neutron, the electron, the proton. So through that process, energy is developed. This is pretty consistent throughout the entire universe. The only thing in the universe that believes that one of one thing is sufficient are homosexuals.” He’s talking about male reproductive parts.
Although Manning is an extreme example, tolerance for the LGBT community is lower among African Americans than other racial groups. In 2008, seven in 10 African American voters -- significantly more than latinos or caucasians -- supported Proposition 8 in California, which temporarily banned same-sex marriage there. A recent Pew poll showed that 30 percent of black Democrats believed that the party was "too willing to accept same sex marriage," compared to just 13 percent of hispanics and 11 percent of whites.
"This is religion, and you can't really separate out religion from black culture. There are ways it comes out, and not everybody is a Christian, but that's the key piece,”
Anthea Butler, a religious studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Washington Post, by way of explanation for the Pew poll. “A lot of people are not happy with using the narrative of civil rights to talk about same sex marriage."
Back in Harlem, a lot of people are also not happy with the idea that they might be associated with Manning.
Some warned me, with widened eyes and fingers twirling in the air, that Manning is "kind of crazy," or "nuts." They inform me of his criminal record, and of the fact that when he distributes religious literature on the street, it is sometimes gleefully burned. In the windows of nearby brownstones, signs are displayed reading "AFRICAN AMERICANS FOR OBAMA."
Directly next door to ATLAH, a different church, the Greater Bethel A.M.E. Church, has put out their very own sign, which reads: “THIS CHURCH IS NOT AFFILIATED WITH THE CHURCH ON THE CORNER. WE SUPPORT PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA."