There were no tears on the last Sunday. The singers belted out, “I’ve come to give God the glory, because he’s been so good to me.” Parishioners waved goodbye as if they knew they would see each other again.
Rivers at Rehoboth, a self-described “all inclusive” church for gay men, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered people, held its final service at North Presbyterian Church on West 155th Street on September 30th and embarked on a search for its fourth home since its 2006 founding. Formerly known as Rivers at Living Water, the church has served as a sanctuary for the LGBT community.
“As I came to know myself and my sexuality, I found that I was not accepted by the traditional churches,” said congregant Kimberly Wylie, who grew up attending Baptist churches. “It was a lot of talk against being gay. I stopped going to church.” Rivers, she said, “is a place where we could feel comfortable in who we are and what we are.”
The predominantly African-American congregation, with over 200 members, had learned of the move a week before.
Pastor Vanessa Brown took to the stage and made the announcement. “Anything that’s living is moving,” said Brown. “God wants us to move intentionally.”
Worshippers gasped. Rivers had only been meeting in North Presbyterian’s social hall since August, but Brown immediately assured them that, “God has already worked it out.”
Suddenly congregant Leonard Hicks jumped up and dashed back and forth across the stage yelling, “It shall be so.” People turned to each other, looked into their neighbors’ eyes and said, “All is well and in divine order.” The church band played jubilant gospel.
For its first three years, the congregation rented space in St. Luke AME Church on West 152nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue. As membership grew and the congregation needed more room, it moved to the Bronx Community Pride Center. But that building was condemned 18 months into its stay. Rivers at Rehoboth moved again to Grace Congregational Church of Harlem.
At Grace, Brown felt her congregation was tolerated, but not affirmed.
“The church was not inclusive; the pastor was,” said Brown. “The church was split on whether Rehoboth should be in that space, because people just didn’t want gay and lesbians there.”
Reverend Nigel Pearce, Grace’s pastor for six years, denies intolerance at his church.
“The issues weren’t about acceptance or tolerance. They were a fast-growing church and they outgrew the space,” said Pearce. “The few that spoke out against Rivers was about five people,” he added. “Some of those were not against LGBT but against sharing the church,” because after services, “they could not stay in their sanctuary and relax; we had to clear out.”
At Northern Presbyterian, “when we moved in, we had not signed a memorandum of understanding or a lease,” said Brown. “When North Presbyterian presented the lease for signing, it had things in there that we didn’t discuss.”
Brown objected to what she deemed unfair provisions, such as a prohibition against gathering in front of the church after services and a requirement that Rivers at Rehoboth purchase and set up a stage for services.
Brown also says North Presbyterian raised the rent by 25 percent over the amount agreed on.
“We agreed to $1400 a month for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.,” said Brown. After she questioned the non-financial provisions of the lease, she said, Northern Presbyterian agreed but then sought $2000 a month.
When the congregation declined what Brown called an “egregious” increase, North Presbyterian Church granted a 30-day extension. It ended September 30th, leaving the congregation homeless. Northern Presbyterian did not respond to requests for comment.
“In finding a permanent home, the third one is the Promised Land,” said Hicks when the latest move was announced. “We don’t know when, we don’t know where, but God got this” he added. “You got these churches here that don’t accept the lifestyle. As long as you’re seeking God, Rehoboth is a church for you.”
The congregation has kept its faith but Brown, exploring possible new locations, said last week, “The search is not going well.” She’s reached out to Lutheran and Episcopal churches, theatres and schools.
“The problem is that churches feel intimidated by our numbers,” said Brown. “There’s also a difference between toleration and affirmation and it shows.”