Cathedral Hospital Plan Stalls Amid Concern Over Evangelical Role

Plans to turn the Cathedral of St. John the Divine into a vast coronavirus field hospital were abruptly shelved on Thursday, with public health officials saying that a leveling off in virus-related hospitalizations in New York City had made them reassess the need for the project.

But behind the scenes, Episcopal leaders said they were upset by the role played in the project by Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical humanitarian organization whose approach to L.G.B.T. issues runs counter to that of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, which is based out of the cathedral.

Samaritan’s Purse is led by the Rev. Franklin Graham, who has been criticized for anti-Muslim and anti-L.G.B.T.Q. rhetoric and whose organization is based on a statement of faith that includes a belief that “marriage is exclusively the union of one genetic male and one genetic female.”

The Episcopal Church did not realize that Samaritan’s Purse would be involved in the project when it offered the use of the cathedral to Mount Sinai Health System last month, and the slowing rate of hospitalizations might have created an opportunity for all parties to step back from a fraught situation, officials said.

The project was intended to turn the church, which describes itself as the largest cathedral in the world, into a 200-bed medical facility. If the need for hospital space increases, those plans may be reactivated, but Dean Clifton Daniel III, the cathedral’s leader, said he thought Samaritan’s Purse would not be back.

“The cathedral and Samaritan’s Purse have very different creeds and very different core beliefs and commitments,” Dean Daniel said. “But we here at the cathedral were willing to set those differences aside, severe as they are, in the service of this city and community.”

The dean said he was told by Mount Sinai on Wednesday night that the project would not move forward because the outbreak in New York had begun to plateau. In a statement on Thursday, a spokesman for the hospital network said it was “optimistic that we are seeing a flattening of the curve.”

“As such, we are reassessing needs, resources and plans for how best to care for New Yorkers,” said Jason Kaplan, the spokesman. “We are grateful for all the help we are receiving and, if needed, will continue to look for other ways to expand care as the pandemic continues to unfold.”

Kaitlyn Lahm, a spokeswoman for Samaritan’s Purse, said the group decided against opening a field hospital at the cathedral, where the floor was covered on Thursday by blue tarps that bore the relief group’s stylized cross logo. She did not say what had led to the change.

“After further discussions and assessment, we will not be moving forward with an expansion at this location,” Ms. Lahm said. “We continue to partner with Mount Sinai Health at our Central Park emergency field hospital and will work with them to establish more treatment capacity if needed.”

Ms. Lahm said the group does not discriminate in providing treatment. She added: “We are a Christian organization and we hire Christians who share our statement of faith.”

The role of Samaritan’s Purse in responding to the coronavirus outbreak in New York first drew criticism last month when the group, in partnership with Mount Sinai, built a field hospital in Central Park.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference last week that the city had received assurances from Samaritan’s Purse that it would follow local anti-discrimination laws in providing treatment. Mount Sinai has defended its decision to partner with Samaritan’s Purse as a pragmatic move during a public health crisis.

“While our organizations may have differences of opinions, when it comes to Covid-19 we are fully united: We will care for everyone and no patients or staff will be discriminated against,” Mr. Kaplan said in an email. “Mount Sinai and Samaritan’s Purse are unified in our mission to provide the same world-class care to anyone and everyone who needs it. No questions asked.”

The cathedral’s leaders see it as a beacon of an inclusive form of Christianity as well as a representative of New York City in all its diversity.

Its Edenic 11-acre grounds in Morningside Heights are home to an AIDS memorial, and one of its chapels houses a bronze and white gold triptych, “The Life of Christ,” by Keith Haring, a gay artist who died of AIDS in 1990.

One of the Episcopal bishops in New York, Mary D. Glasspool, was the first openly lesbian bishop to be consecrated in the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a part. She and the other bishops declined to comment on the hospital project on Thursday.

Dean Daniel is known for reminding parishioners that Matthew Shepard, a college student killed in 1998 in an act of homophobic violence, was laid to rest in 2018 at the Washington National Cathedral, the Episcopal house of worship that is a fixture of American politics and religion.

On Thursday, he said that the cathedral was ready and willing to help local, state or public health authorities respond to the coronavirus pandemic, and that its commitment to both the city and its core beliefs remained unshaken.

“We’ve always been committed to the people of the city, especially those who might be marginalized or oppressed or for whom prejudice exists,” Dean Daniel said. “And in most recent years, obviously the L.G.B.T.Q. community for whom we have been a strong advocate, we will continue to be a strong advocate.”


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