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NYC bishop’s message to religious leaders still holding services: 'You’re making a bad decision'

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In Part 2 of our interview with Bishop Clifton Daniel, the dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, he discusses his decision to open 400 beds in the progressive and ecumenical place of worship in partnership with Samaritan’s Purse, which is known to be against LGBTQI people and Muslims, and his message for religious leaders who refuse to follow social distancing guidelines as they prepare to celebrate Holy Week, Passover and Ramadan in the age of coronavirus.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States right here in New York City. As millions of worshipers around the globe enter the month of April preparing to observe Holy Week, Passover, Ramadan in this age of the coronavirus, we turn now to the dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine here in Manhattan. It’s set to open its doors, hundreds of beds for patients to make more space in hospitals for those suffering from coronavirus. Meanwhile, Pope Francis marked a surreal Palm Sunday in an empty St. Peter’s Basilica urging people not to be so concerned with what they lack, but how they can ease the suffering of others.

POPE FRANCIS: [translated] Today, in the tragedy of a pandemic, in the face of the many false securities that have now crumbled, in the face of so many hopes betrayed, in the sense of abandonment that weighs upon our hearts, Jesus says to each one, “Courage, open your heart to my love. You will feel the consolation of God who sustains you.”

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined on the phone by Bishop Clifton Daniel, the dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, to Part 2 of our discussion, Dean. You know, we’re talking to you on the telephone. Normally, when you’re in New York City, as we are, we would have you in our studio.

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: But to prevent against community spread, people are staying home. People are taking personal responsibility, if they have — sometimes people talk about the luxury of being able to stay home, but if they have that ability —

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — if they’re not essential workers. So I thank you so much for joining us, Bishop.

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about religion in the time of coronavirus? We just heard the pope.

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: Oh, religion in the time of coronavirus, well, sure. Let me say, first of all, that God has very low standards in people, and that’s why we have religion. The point of religion, certainly Christianity, which is my tradition, is about helping — loving God and loving neighbor. We love God by loving our neighbor. And the way we’re loving our neighbor right now is by setting up tents in the hospital — in the cathedral in order to save lives. If we can save one life, then I think we will have succeeded in all these efforts. And if it takes the collaboration of Samaritan’s Purse and Mount Sinai Hospital and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, then suddenly that’s what we’ve got to do. I hope that, in years to come, we can look back on this, and we can look back with some pride and say how we responded, and we responded with love and care for those who are in need. I don’t care who they are. If a person is in need, this is the place to come, or one place to come, where they can be helped and saved physically.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to go back to the point that you just made, and we talked about it in Part 1 of our discussion, and that’s working with Samaritan’s Purse —

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — whose CEO is Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, Franklin Graham being continually praised by President Trump, talked about as a spiritual adviser. And he runs Samaritan’s Purse, which is working with Mount Sinai Hospital, set up tents in Central Park. And now you’ve made that decision that they can work in your cathedral, the largest cathedral in the world.

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, this is a place, for people who don’t know — the Christian fundamentalist group Samaritan’s Purse, you know, Franklin Graham is known as a virulently Islamophobic, anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ preacher.

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: And after he erected the tents, working with Mount Sinai — and now you’re going to be working with him — Bill de Blasio, the mayor, promised to send aides to monitor the group to prevent against discrimination against patients. Interestingly — first, if you could comment again on why you decided to work with this group? St. John the Divine is known, for example, for decades, very outspoken in support of LGBTQ rights —

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — embracing the Muslim community and others. Why you decided to make this alliance?

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: We, at the cathedral, are unwavering in our commitment to support LGBTQ groups and people. We’re in the business of supporting people and loving people. I decided that, I don’t know, if I were on the Titanic when they were going down, I don’t think that would be the time to count the silverware. That’s the time to get out on the deck and launch the lifeboats. And that’s exactly what we’re doing. We can settle out our differences later. But right now our work, our mission and ministry, has to be to save lives and end the suffering caused by this COVID virus.

Now, we can get down to the religious persuasions and discussions as we go along. And you have to know I disagree fundamentally, totally and completely with Franklin Graham and his radical, I think anti-Christian, views on gays and Islam. This is foreign to me. But at the same time, these people came. I’ve met them. They’re friendly people. They’re loving people. They’re not asking anybody who you are, where you’re from or what you believe. They’re putting up a tent to save lives. And I’ll go that far with them. And I’m thankful for them in that way. But this in no way indicates any change in the position of St. John the Divine, which is fundamentally and totally in support of gays and minorities and marginalized people. And we’ll do all we can to serve them.

AMY GOODMAN: Clifton Daniel, I’m listening to your twang, and you have an interesting connection to the Grahams. You’re from North Carolina.

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Franklin Graham, his father Billy Graham from North Carolina.

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: You are a dear friend of Reverend William Barber, also from North Carolina. Talk about the North Carolina nexus.

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: Well, the North Carolina nexus, now, Billy Graham and Samaritan’s Purse, they’re in the mountains. They’re mountain people. Bill Barber and I are in the eastern part of the state near the coast. We’re coastal people. And we have that connection, that geographic connection, so I know Bill Barber better. I’ve been to his church in Goldsboro before, a lovely place, Greenleaf Christian Church. I just think Bill Barber carries on the freedom march that Martin King started so many years ago. He’s the Poor People’s Campaign. He’s been here. He’s spoken in this cathedral, and it was electrifying. And his vision for our world is a great vision, a great vision where hunger is ended, discrimination is ended, people are treated fairly, paid fairly. And I just — I think he is as fine as they come.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, if you could talk to people of every religion, and atheists and agnostics, as well? I mean, you preside over the largest cathedral in the world, St. John the Divine.

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s closed now to the sort of traditional form of worship, in the time of the coronavirus, to keep social distance —

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — protect against community spread. So, if you can talk about the importance of these gatherings, when you can have them, but also what it means to be spiritual apart, perhaps alone?

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: Yes. Well, the value of the conversation is that we are together and agree or disagree. We are talking to one another. And as long as we keep talking, relationships can grow. When we stop talking is when relationships die. So I’m all for talking. I’m all for continuing the conversation. The cathedral is a place where the conversation can continue openly and with all points of view.

Now, in the time of isolation, what we’re learning is that we have to figure out different ways of being together. Every night at 7:00, the cathedral bells ring, and people clap their hands and sing. And that’s a way of being together. It’s not the best way, but it’s one sign that there’s a community, there’s a heartbeat here in the city, that we’re all pulling together. We’re New York strong, New York tough, New York compassionate. And here we are, and there’s the signal for it. Opening the hospital and the cathedral is another way. For people at home, we have — we are offering virtual online services at the cathedral website, to come and join in three times a day in prayer and greetings and conversation. So —

AMY GOODMAN: Bishop Clifton Daniel, I wanted to just show people. In New York City — and I think people are doing it in communities all over the world, certainly in Spain — people are going onto their balconies, and they’re cheering for essential workers.

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: Oh, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And in New York City, this is just right around Democracy Now!, what it sounded like last night at 7.

NEW YORKERS: [cheering]

AMY GOODMAN: There you have it, people cheering, people hitting their pots and pans. You can’t — the streets are almost clear.

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: You can’t see them, but they’re screaming from their windows, throughout New York.

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: Absolutely. The only thing missing —

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re chiming the bells of the cathedral?

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: The bells are ringing out loud and clear. And what they’re ringing is support and thanks to the first responders and the medical staff next door at Mount Sinai Hospital, to say thank you, and thank God for you and what you’re doing, the risks you’re taking in service of others, and we’re behind you 100%.

AMY GOODMAN: Now I wanted to ask you about what’s happening in other states. It is quite an amazing story. You have, oh, just a few states who have not issued that stay-at-home order. But even for those that have, at least 14 have exemptions for religious gatherings. Now, it looks like the pope in Italy, in the Vatican, is not making that exemption. But I’m wondering if you can comment? To the shock of so many, I believe one minister was recently arrested — I think it was in Florida — for refusing to abide by the rules to not to have people gather and to abide by social distancing rules. But what about that, governors who say, “Oh, yes, the churches, they can gather”? You’ve taken a different approach.

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: That’s correct. I mean, there are always people who are going to be contrary. No matter what you say, they’re going to say the opposite. But my standard is: What is the best way in which the cathedral and the Christian faith, as expressed in the Episcopal Church, of which we’re part — how can that best be expressed in this moment? And in my mind, the best, best way it can be expressed is a rather — like a different way. It’s like we need to close our doors now, in order to protect people, in order to keep people safe as far as we can. And I don’t think it’s a safe practice for people to come into the cathedral and gather in large crowds. We would have 3,000 people next Sunday on Easter Day. I think that would be a disservice to people. It would fit our religious needs, if you will, our ritual needs, but it would not meet the needs of people. So that’s why I closed the cathedral down.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is your message to fellow clergy who are insisting on keeping their houses of worship open?

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: I disagree with you completely. I think you’re making a bad decision and a wrong decision, that you’re serving some need other than the needs of the people.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much, Bishop Clifton Daniel, dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, the largest cathedral in the world. Is that right?

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: Well, yes, but there are bigger churches. St. Peter’s in Rome is bigger, but it’s not a cathedral. It’s a basilica. So we’re the largest Gothic cathedral in the world physically, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks so much for speaking to us.

BISHOP CLIFTON DANIEL: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Bishop of the Episcopal Church in New York City, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. To see Part 1 of our discussion with him, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, New York City. Thank you so much.

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