As a white Jewish twenty-something living in Harlem with two gay, African American roommates, diversity and acceptance have been staples of my life in New York City.
But despite this being one of the world's most liberal places, tolerance is not something that lives in the hearts of every New Yorker. Just last week, I walked past this sign, perched in front of a large, heavily fenced in church just blocks from my apartment.
The sign belongs to Atlah World Missionary Church, and was — in all likelihood — approved if not orchestrated by Pastor James David Manning, well known for his homophobia and hatred for gays and President Barack Obama.
And while it may be interesting to talk about the church and its founders, or investigate what they represent or where their hatred comes from, what I found far more interesting was the men and women it actually addressed: the gay community of Harlem.
"I knew it (the church) was in New York, but I didn't know it was like, right there, until I saw it about a year ago," my roommate Daniel told me. "And then I was walking home from 116th one day, it said something about 'f*ggots' or 'aliens' or something and I was just like, 'whaaat?!'"
Both of my roommates were devout Christians who attended church throughout their childhood. Daniel went to a non-denominational church in Ohio three times a week while Chris was the member of a Baptist church in North Carolina. Despite Daniel's initial reaction to seeing the sign, neither of them were as surprised as I was that the sign existed in the first place.
"I wasn't surprised or pissed off when I saw it," Chris told me. "I mean, I just thought to myself, 'how are we in these times and this is still relevant?' Don't you have better things to do with your time than post that? Who sits down to think about these sayings that are going up on this church?"
The affect the church's signs are going for isn't lost on them, either.
"Sometimes I'm just like 'they're doing this for the shock value and to get their name in the news,'" Daniel said. "And other times I'm like, 'they obviously think like this.'"
Daniel remembered not-so-fondly how his church turned its back on his parents when they got divorced. He remembers adults from the church asking his 12-year-old self how his parents were doing when they knew damn well what was going on, but thought the kid would be easy to milk for gossip. He remembers a cheating scandal that came to light when a member of the congregation took the microphone and explained that the pastor had been sleeping with his wife. And he remembers all of it being swept under the rug.
"So from that I kind of saw how they were so supportive and loving until you're not quote-on-quote perfect in their eyes," Daniel said. "But there is just a lot of hypocrisy."
Daniel also recalled hearing "homosexuality is wrong" as a child but not being able to stop his 9-year-old self from getting excited over trips to the men's locker room because of the — you know — penises. We shared this memory with roaring laughter.
Chris' experience was a little different, in a Baptist church where the pastor's only speech about homosexuality also included the tagline "be who you are." Still, though, his father's side of the family wasn't quite as understanding.
"I didn't want to come out because of my dad's side," Chris said. "They're Nigerian. They don't play. But, the Bible says it: 'he without sin can cast the first stone.'"
"Don't let the Bible or anyone tell you how God feels about you," he added. "That's a relationship that you two have, you have to establish that relationship you have with God, you make that relationship how you want to make it."
It was at this point in the conversation that I realized how little I really knew about my roommates' day-to-day experiences and beliefs and all the things in their childhood that had helped create this life they were living just blocks from the homophobic church. Truly, it was a beautiful realization to begin to understand their background and know that it was only happening after eight months of living together because such a hateful sign — intended for the opposite effect — had motivated me to speak to them.
"You could literally be in the black church, gay and successful, but the guy that has f*cked like five girls in the church and has babies all over will be the one they look up to," Daniel remembered. "They give criminals more praise in the church than gay people."
According to both of them, their experience was something that's still very prominent in "black society," particularly the churches. They said that other cultures are miles ahead in accepting and embracing homosexuality, but that's not to say they don't understand why.
"We were taught to be so hard and so not loving," Daniel said. "We had to fight for our freedom and be rough and tough, and if you're seen as a f*g or something as 'less than,' you're just slowing us down; we need strong burly men. But what if it's the strong burly men going out and getting involved in drugs, having kids everywhere and going to jail?"
Daniel and Chris' experience of being ostracized by America's largest religion is compounded by a frustration with the apparent hypocrisy of the church's hatred.
"They don't care enough to ask about Christopher," Chris added, sharing his sentiment. "They're worried about what Christopher is doing at night, when the doors are closed in the bedroom, but they don't want to know about what Christopher is doing to make his life better."