Since opening for services in 1930, Riverside Church has been one of the most progressive religious institutions in New York City.
Maranatha, the church’s long-running LGBT group, considers itself the oldest religious group associated with a single congregation to have participated in the city’s pride marches, which it has done since its formation in 1978.
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Riverside Church, which is affiliated with the American Baptist Church and the United Church of Christ, has been an institution active in the history of LGBT inclusion in New York City since the early 1970s. Bill Johnson, the first openly gay minister of the United Church of Christ, was ordained at Riverside Church in 1972, the first step towards eventual LGBT inclusion at the church. Six years later, in 1978, congregants of the church organized an adult ministry group, led by Sam Barrett, devoted to the inclusion and study of homosexuality and religion.
The group, self-named Maranatha after a Biblical verse generally translated as “the Lord cometh,” began as a small support gathering. It slowly grew into a very active organization, which was involved with the larger New York City gay rights network. It eventually hosted sermons and religious activities to promote LGBT equality in the church. Maranatha considers itself the oldest religious group associated with a single congregation to have participated in New York’s pride marches, which it has done since 1978.
In 1985, after strong persistence from Maranatha, Riverside Church’s Board of Deacons and the full congregation voted to endorse “A Statement of Openness, Inclusion and Affirmation of Gay and Lesbian Persons,” making it one of the first congregations in the country to do so. While this decision was met with opposition from some Riverside congregants and from other religious institutions in the city, the presence of progressive ministers at Riverside, such as Dr. William Sloane Coffin, helped to ensure that this statement was upheld. Several ministers at Riverside performed same-sex union ceremonies in the 1980s, and the congregation endorsed marriage equality in 1996.
Maranatha is still active today. It continues to advocate and provide support for religious LGBT individuals through regular meetings, open discussions, community outreach, and church newsletters.
This entry is based on preliminary research by Gwen Stricker, student at Columbia University.
- Architect or Builder: Allen & Collens and Henry C. Pelton
- Year Built: 1926-30
Maranatha Archive Files, “Meeting Minutes 1978,” “Maranatha 10th Anniversary Book,” “Bill Johnson Maranatha Archive,” [1978-1990]. Riverside Church Archival Records, box 504, 298, 295.
Morningside Heights Digital History, bit.ly/31RxHJC.
NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, telephone interviews with Don Bickford and Virl Andrick, December 2019.
The Riverside Church in the City of New York, bit.ly/2uzEwn9.