Evangelical leader Franklin Graham responds to criticism from Samaritan’s Purse Central Park Field Hospital

The last patients were discharged from the Central Park field hospital run by Samaritan’s Purse, the evangelical organization headed by the Reverend Franklin Graham. Its white tents will soon be dismantled and sent to new makeshift coronavirus quarters as far away as Ecuador and Alaska.

Samaritan’s Purse doctors and nurses treated more than 300 New Yorkers after the Mount Sinai Health System invited the group to the city at the height of the pandemic, but its work has been hampered by controversy since its inception.

In an interview on Thursday amid empty tents, Mr Graham said the decision to leave New York was driven by falling infection numbers, not politics. But he expressed his anger at his critics, who he said had been “a distraction” from life-saving work.

Samaritan’s Purse’s presence in one of the nation’s most liberal cities has sparked a culture war in New York’s coronavirus response, drawing criticism from elected officials, religious leaders and LGBT groups angered by past statements by Mr. Graham on Islam and gay issues, as well as a requirement that employees of the organization be Christians who oppose same-sex marriage.

Critics have included members of the Episcopal clergy, whose objections to the group’s stance on gay issues and non-Christian religions helped scrap a proposed field hospital inside St. John’s Cathedral. -the-Divine, and City Council President Corey Johnson. He described Mr. Graham on Twitter as “notoriously bigoted” and said the group’s “continued presence here is an affront to our values ​​of inclusion”.

Mr Graham disputed Mr Johnson’s feelings.

“New York is – how many millions of people live here?” Mr. Graham said. “There is no single set of values ​​that represents nine million people. I think it’s just ridiculous for me to even make a statement like that.

Mr Graham, 67, said he flew one of the organization’s Dassault Falcon planes to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey from North Carolina early Thursday morning to thank staff members and meet Mount Sinai officials.

Son of Billy Graham and one of the leading figures of evangelical Christianity, Mr Graham said New Yorkers and conservative evangelical Christians share many values, including “our love of freedom, our love of country, our love of God”.

Much of the criticism of Samaritan’s Purse stems from the group’s requirement that employees and volunteers sign a statement of faith affirming their belief in Jesus Christ and their view that “marriage is exclusively the union of ‘a genetic man and a genetic woman’.

Mr Graham defended the demand on Thursday, saying it was important to ensure that “our work and our presence are united”.

Bishop Andrew M. L. Dietsche of the Episcopal Diocese of New York said that attitude was a “key” reason why the plan to create a field hospital inside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine had was dropped last month.

He said Mr Graham espouses ‘an exclusive view and a very narrow view of what constitutes being a Christian’.

The declaration of faith would have made it impossible for non-Christians to work in the cathedral, he said. It would also have required Episcopalians to “reject all the good work that has been done in the Diocese of New York around the full inclusion of gays and lesbians.”

“Most of the members of my own churches in the New York Diocese would not have been able to sign this statement of belief and therefore would not be invited or permitted to participate in this ministry inside their own cathedral,” said the bishop.

On Friday afternoon, the city’s Commission on Human Rights closed an investigation into the hospital after finding no evidence that it had discriminated against patients, according to its defense attorney. press, Alicia McCauley.

The field hospital opened on April 1 and received the vast majority of its patients from the hard-hit Mount Sinai Community Hospital in Queens. Samaritan’s Purse staff treated 333 patients in New York City, 190 at Tent Hospital and the rest at two Mount Sinai hospitals, said Melissa Strickland, a spokeswoman.

Mr Graham said he had budgeted $1.8million a month to run the hospital and his organization’s demand that its employees be exempt from state and local income tax while while working in New York had been rejected.

He said no workers at the field hospital had been infected with the coronavirus, which he attributed to the safety measures the group adopted to deal with outbreaks abroad, including Ebola. Its employees are asked to self-quarantine for 14 days when they return home.

He said Samaritan’s Purse has never withheld care from anyone because of a difference in belief, overseas or in New York.

But some New Yorkers are skeptical. The organisation’s slogan, ‘Help in the name of Jesus’, was on trucks outside the field hospital, and Mr Graham delivered an Easter sermon on Fox News from the site.

Some have also expressed concern about Mr. Graham’s past statements and political activities. He is a strong supporter of President Trump, a role that has made some evangelicals uncomfortable, and has a long history of negative remarks about LGBT people and Muslims.

Mr Graham, in a 2001 interview, described Islam as “a very evil and wicked religion”. He later falsely suggested that President Barack Obama was secretly a Muslim, stoking the ‘birther’ conspiracy theory that claimed Mr Obama was not a US citizen.

He compared same-sex marriage to polygamy and incest and opposed a bill banning anti-gay conversion therapy in 2017, calling homosexuality an “abomination”.

Ann Northrop, a member of the Reclaim Pride Coalition, which has organized protests against Samaritan’s Purse, said Mr Graham’s group had made many LGBT New Yorkers feel “personally attacked and personally unsafe”.

“Just because they say they won’t back down or they won’t try to proselytize you or they’ll start praying loudly over you to know how Jesus is going to change you or save you, it all comes in mind, whether that’s a real possibility or not,” Ms. Northrop said.

Mr Graham said he had no ill will towards gay people.

“I would like the gay community to know that I am not here to condemn them at all,” he said. “Just because I don’t agree doesn’t mean I’m against them.”

Jason Kaplan, a Mount Sinai spokesperson, said in a statement that Samaritan’s Purse has agreed to adhere to the hospital network’s anti-discrimination policies.

Samaritan’s Purse provides medical and spiritual aid to the sick, Mr Graham said. About 5% of its budget is spent on “direct evangelism,” such as printing religious materials or programs, Ms Strickland said. But she said it was difficult to separate medical and missionary activities because the group’s medical work was vital to spreading a message of Christ’s love.

The organization’s website states that “Samaritan’s Purse’s primary mission is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Spiritual help could come in the form of medical workers praying with patients, Graham said.

“Of course you have these sick people you’re trying to save,” he said. “Many of our nurses and doctors quietly prayed for them. Sometimes they would ask, ‘Do you want us to pray?’ Each of them wanted the prayer. No one said, ‘No, don’t pray for me.’ »

But Mr Graham said his staff ‘never prayed for someone who didn’t want it’.

“Excuse me, let me say this differently,” he said. “Our staff pray all day. They would not impose themselves on anyone and would not try to impose on anyone our religion or what we believe. We don’t do that.

Critics of Mr Graham have received their share of backlash. In an op-ed in the New York Post, Jonathan S. Tobin, editor of the Jewish News Syndicate, said Mr Johnson and other Democrats had shown “ingratitude” towards Samaritan’s Purse.

“Rather than welcoming the band’s selfless sacrifice, our great locals have greeted it with suspicion and hostility, treating the pandemic as just one more culture war battle line, rather than an opportunity to unite through old divisions,” he wrote.

Mr Graham said he thought most New Yorkers agreed with him on marriage, a claim not confirmed by poll data, which in 2017 showed 69% of the state supported same-sex marriage.

“The vast majority of people in the city believe that marriage is between a man and a woman,” he said, “but the majority would also say that if two men want to live together, that’s their business, or if two women want to live together, that’s their business.

Mr Johnson said Mr Graham’s record was not a matter that reasonable people could agree to disagree on.

“Civil rights and recognizing the goodness and intrinsic worth of gays and Muslims is not a matter of difference of opinion,” Johnson said.

But the controversy did not affect the daily routine of the field hospital. Workers there said they were warmly welcomed by New Yorkers, who sent food and gathered to cheer them on at 7 p.m.

“We’ve been so well loved here, really,” said Jill Pike, 30, a nurse who traveled with her husband, Brendan, from Medford, Oregon, to work at the hospital. The couple said their faith led them to Samaritan’s Purse.

“We work here with people who all share a common goal,” said Mr Pike, 28, who is also a nurse. “We are all here because Jesus died for us and for our sins, so we came here to give a small part of our life to help others. How could we not? Giving sacrificial love is very important to us.

Barry F. Howard