When Reverend Fred Phelps passed away in Kansas last week, we placed bets on which family member might succeed him as the head of the Westboro Baptist Church, one of the country’s most visible hate groups. However, while Phelps’ relatives were busy grieving the loss of their patriarch, someone from outside the church stepped forward to claim the title of the most bigoted religious leader in the United States. Enter Pastor James David Manning.
Proving that the Bible Belt doesn’t have a monopoly on homophobic zealots, the leader of ATLAH World Missionary Church in New York’s Harlem neighborhood hit the news after local blogger Marie Viljoen wrote a post about a billboard outside his church: “Jesus Would Stone Homos.”
But it’s not the first time Manning’s signs have drawn attention. The media baiter posted one in 2010 reading, “The Blood of Jesus Against Obama/History Made 4 Nov 2008/A Taliban Muslim Illegally Elected President USA: Hussein.” It was then tweeted by Ann Coulter and favorited by Sarah Palin. This time, though, community members have besieged the proud birther, saying they’re tired of seeing him get a free pass.
Local lesbian and all-round champion Jennifer Louise Lopez visited the church last week to report for her stoning, and an unidentified man removed the lettering from the sign and spray-painted the words “God Is Gay”—neither of which has dissuaded Manning. When asked if he actually advocates the stoning of gay women and men, or if it’s just rhetoric to illustrate his point, Manning responds calmly, stating that he believes gay people should come to physical harm.
“Should we demonstrate some constraint if a person is repentive [sic], if a person is willing to leave that lifestyle? Absolutely,” he tells Vocativ. “However, I do think that anyone who promotes that as a lifestyle and tries to make it a national and international event and create warfare upon everybody else, then the appropriate response would be to stone them back to the Stone Age, or stone them back to hell.”
Born in North Carolina, the 67-year-old preacher moved to New York after high school and soon began making a living by breaking into Long Island homes. It’s estimated that he burgled 100 residences and eventually spent three-and-a-half years locked up in “New York and Florida for burglary, robbery, larceny and criminal possession of a weapon.” On the inside, though, is where he became a devout Christian. He began working for ATLAH in 1981, and in the following three decades, he became the public face of the church, gaining attention for his inflammatory proselytizing.
Speaking of comparisons between himself and Fred Phelps, Manning adopts an air of professional respect. Like Westboro’s former leader, he believes in the more condemnatory aspects of religion—that there’s a hell, and a vengeful God will commit those he deems as sinners to an eternity of damnation. And, by golly, gays are on his radar. “The liberals and progressives, the gays and others are of the mind-set that everything is wonderful and lovely, and there’ll be no wrath of god,” he says. “I don’t necessarily consider myself a colleague of Fred Phelps…but I understand exactly what he says and what he’s doing. Or what he did, rather.”
The pastor hasn’t always been so obsessively focused on the lives of lesbians and gay men. His interest in the gay scourge that, according to Manning, is currently plaguing the U.S., can be traced back to President Obama, who unleashed “homo demons” during his “second illegal inaugural address” by suggesting that they be afforded equal rights under the law. “In my estimation, that was an official release of the demonic spirit,” he says. “Because homosexuality is a demonic spirit, such as cannibalism or other kinds—even pedophilia is a demonic spirit—and it’s these wicked manifestations that are in our universe that inhabit people and cause them to act in one way or the other. And he released them.”
Since then, he has been vigilant about keeping an eye on the ghoulish gays he says are currently infiltrating society at all levels. He conflates them with pedophiles at several points throughout the interview. “In the Catholic Church, the homosexual spirit is imminent, it is powerful, but it is also degrading. It seeks out the innocence of young boys and preys upon them where it moves from homosexuality to pedophilia,” he says. “That same spirit runs around here in New York City. It’s on television. They’re in movies, they’re in sports—there’s Jason Collins and Michael Sam and a bunch of other people as well. They’re just not Catholic and they’re not priests, but it’s the same identical thing.”
The topic of New York’s downfall is dear to the pastor. Known for his opposition to gentrification in Harlem, he sees himself as one of the neighborhood’s fiercest advocates. And while he speaks eloquently about the social and economic disparity faced by black women and men throughout the U.S., he quickly undercuts himself by citing the ways that gay men have fueled inequality.
“The white homo who now lives in the community—and there are a lot of them that moved up here—they brought their restaurants, they brought some of their lifestyle, they brought their Starbucks coffee with them…and like anybody else, they prey on black men, they convert black men,” he says. “Not only those who live here, but in the office buildings all over New York City and places around America where homosexuals have supervisory positions.”
Manning continues: “Just like in the Jungle Fever movie by Spike Lee, about the black man and the white woman in the office leaving the black woman who’s up in the hood and the white woman takes her man. The white homos are going to take the black woman’s man.”
But it’s not just white guys who are to blame, according to Manning. Describing prisons as “incubators for homosexuality,” he argues that the increasing acceptance of same-sex relationships means that straight-identifying men of color who engaged in gay sex on the inside will no longer be ashamed of their actions upon their release. That’s when, presumably, they’ll become more susceptible to the siren song of the gay, white male and less likely to reintegrate back into their communities “as leaders, as fathers, as men.”
When it’s suggested that he might try preaching tolerance and inclusivity if he is genuinely interested in improving social cohesion in his community, Pastor Manning is utterly incredulous. “Homosexuals are the most intolerant of all people I’ve met. I’ve encountered Ku Klux Klan members who are more tolerant of people opposing their point of view,” he says, adding that he supports recent anti-gay legislation in Uganda and Russia. “You talk about inclusive—including what? Including evil? Why don’t I include Jeffrey Dahmer or John Wayne Gacy as a part of our elder board? Why don’t we let them preach sermons? No, nothing could be more ridiculous.”
In response to Pastor Manning, concerned community members have established Harlem Against Violence & Homophobia, a group who raises money for New York’s homeless and at-risk LGBT youth. You can donate here.