Mt. Sinai nixes field hospital at cathedral as Samaritan’s Purse steps back amid LGBT tensions

A volunteer sets up beds in what will be a field hospital in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on April 8, 2020, in New York City.
A volunteer sets up beds in what will be a field hospital in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on April 8, 2020, in New York City. | Getty Images/Spencer Platt

NEW YORK CITY — A day after the Franklin Graham-led Samaritan’s Purse revealed they were stepping back from work on a second field hospital to be housed at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Mount Sinai Hospital, which was leading the effort, informed the cathedral Thursday that they will no longer be using the church’s space.

"We were notified this morning that Mount Sinai will not be pursuing its plans to build a field hospital at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine at this moment. Our commitment to Mount Sinai and to the city, our longtime partners, stands firm, and we will do whatever is in our power to aid the medical workers heroically putting themselves on the front line to help the sick,” a statement from the cathedral to The Christian Post said Thursday.

“As we continue to stand ready to support all in this crisis, we reaffirm our core mission and staunch belief in the worth and dignity of all people, and open our virtual doors to all those who want to participate in Holy Week services,” the church added.

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The decision comes as Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Thursday that New York state was continuing to see a slowdown in the rate of hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions as social distancing efforts being taken to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus continued to work. Thursday saw the state’s lowest hospitalization rate yet with a 200-patient net increase in hospitalizations and 64-patient net increase in ICU admissions. 

The state, however, also saw its highest number of deaths in a single day. A total of 799 people died of complications from the coronavirus in 24 hours, bringing the total number of deaths to 7,067. More than 149,000 infections have been confirmed in the state and nearly half of those are in New York City.

In an interview with CP on Wednesday, Melissa Strickland, Samaritan’s Purse’s senior director of communications, said they would be pausing work on the field hospital as they were not sure if it would be needed.

“At this point we have taken a pause on the work as we assess whether this is a needed site or not,” Strickland said. “We are looking at very large tents that we would be putting up and so that would be a lot of manpower and a lot of work if we have to take it back down. And so we’ve taken a pause at this point in doing that. And that’s not for any reason except that we’re wanting to make sure this is even a needed expansion before we move forward.”

Prior to this development, there had been concerns about possible tensions in the proposed partnership between Mount Sinai and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine stemming from Samaritan’s Purse being introduced as a partner on the project.

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is the cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, which is located in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. The Episcopal Church, which has about 1.6 million members nationwide, is an LGBT inclusive denomination. Samaritan’s Purse is an evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization whose staff adhere to biblically based Christian beliefs and values. 

While none of the parties publicly acknowledged any tensions about the arrangement prior to the nixing of the project, officials connected to the cathedral privately told CP that there were concerns over the hiring practices of Samaritan’s Purse, which is limited to practicing Christians who agree with the organization’s statement of faith.

ABC News reported that a cathedral spokeswoman said "staff had 'a really hard time' dealing with past comments from the organization about LGBTQ people and decided not to move forward."

In a statement to CP on Wednesday, Mount Sinai said while the three parties did not share the same worldview, they were committed to saving lives. And all workers at the field hospital would “adhere to Mount Sinai principles and guidelines when it comes to not discriminating against patients or staff based on actual or perceived race, creed, color, religion, national origin, sex, gender, gender expression, gender identity, age, disability, marital, partnership or parental status, sexual orientation, alien or citizenship status, veteran or military status, or any other characteristic protected by law.

"In short, 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,” Mount Sinai said. "Ultimately, this virus kills people of every religious beliefs, ethnicity, gender identity and sexual orientation. New York has lost over 5,000 people already, and more are dying every day. Mount Sinai, St. John the Divine 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. We are all focused on one thing — saving lives.”

When asked if Samaritan’s Purse staff would be operating under the guidelines of the hospital as stated, Strickland, who said she was on site at the cathedral when she did the interview, told CP that was not the case.

“What they are referring to in their statement is their staff. There will be Samaritan’s Purse staff if we decide to expand anywhere including the cathedral. Our Samaritan’s Purse staff would be our staff and it would be the same as Central Park. If they would be staff, they would be onboarded by Samaritan’s Purse. They would be paid by Samaritan’s Purse, and so they would go through the human resources procedures of Samaritan’s Purse so that there would be no difference between Samaritan’s Purse staff here and Samaritan’s Purse staff at Central Park as far as our HR policies and procedures go.

"Now Mt. Sinai staff, we would not have any authority over them or speak into their hiring process for their staff that they would have on site,” she said, while noting that Samaritan’s Purse was focused on saving lives and not theological or political differences.

“The thing is, right now in New York City, we are all fighting for the same cause. We’re all fighting to save lives and reduce suffering. We may not agree on every single issue but we do agree that there is a critical need for the Samaritan’s Purse field hospital in New York City to save lives.

"I think the good news story in this is that organizations that may not always see eye-to-eye on political issues, on theological issues completely, the cause is greater than those issues. We are coming together to save lives. Mount Sinai and Samaritan’s Purse are coming together to save lives and setting that aside and focusing on what holds us together,” she emphasized.

Strickland also noted that as far as she was aware, there were no tensions with the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

“What I can tell you is that I’ve personally met with Dean Daniels and other staff. We are so thankful that they are wanting to jump into the fight against COVID-19. And the discussions we have had with them about this possible location has been warm and friendly and cordial. We understand from the Samaritan’s Purse perspective just as we understand with Mount Sinai that we may have different worldviews in some areas but the same as Mount Sinai, we have been able to have friendly conversations, discussions,” she said.

“We’re just very thankful to them. … I personally have not had anyone be rude or unkind. It’s about being able to see where the differences lie … and focus on saving lives. I believe the leadership of the cathedral understands that. Everyone that I have met here at the cathedral understands that. They have been gracious and warm and good candid discussions. No one is trying to pretend that there is not some disagreement on certain issues, but at the same time those conversations have been warm and friendly and gracious,” Strickland said.

On Tuesday, The Washington Post cited a statement from Franklin Graham that he was expected to fly to New York City that day and meet with officials at the cathedral.

Strickland confirmed that Graham did indeed visit New York City on Tuesday but did not meet with St. John the Divine officials because he had traveled to the city for a “specific purpose” then had to leave again.

When CP asked about The Washington Post's report that Graham reportedly confirmed he would meet with officials at the cathedral, Strickland said his plans changed.

“That was prior to his arrival. He was thinking that was something he might do but because of his schedule on the ground being a little tighter than he had anticipated, it just didn’t happen,” she said.

“We’ve been very transparent about who we are and they’ve been very transparent about who they are. But we all have this common cause to save lives At the end of the day, that’s what matters.” 

The Mount Sinai hospital network and Samaritan’s Purse have already successfully established a 68-bed field hospital on the East Lawn of Central Park.

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