The Rev. Jerry Falwell called it "one of the most unlikely gatherings of our times." Certainly 15 years ago, when the founder of the Moral Majority hired a Pasadena minister named Mel White to ghost-write his autobiography, he couldn't have forecast that White would one day come out as a gay man, denounce the leaders of the religious right for whom he once worked, form a national group of faith-based people working for gay rights, and demand that Falwell meet with him to discuss bringing an end to the war of words raging between conservative Christians and lesbians and gay men.
But meet they did in this town at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, each flanked by hundreds of clerical and lay supporters. From his Thomas Road Baptist Church and church-affiliated Liberty University, Falwell recruited 200 straight, buttoned-down evangelical fundamentalists to
participate. From 30 cities and various faiths White amassed 200 gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and straight people who had signed on to Soulforce, his pacifist social change organization that is modeled on Mahatma Gandhi's and Martin Luther King Jr.'s philosophies.
Dressed in their Sunday best, the participants gathered Saturday afternoon in the
gymnasium of Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church where they sat together, prayed together and listened as, for the first time, two major religious leaders -- one gay, one straight -- sat down to discuss the impact of hate speech and hate-motivated violence on the lives of their followers.
Generically billed as the Anti-Violence Forum, a title seemingly designed to deflate controversy and establish a common ground, the stated purpose of the event was to diminish the "hateful rhetoric" on both sides of the fence. Both men came to the table because they agree that too much hateful rhetoric flows between gay people and conservative Christians and that hate speech and violence needs to end.
Oddly, Falwell believes that rhetoric from gays has contributed to a wave of violence against Christian fundamentalists. As examples, he has cited the teens at the Wedgewood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, and Columbine High School who he believes were killed "because of their faith." After the Wedgewood shootings, Falwell told a reporter, "Most hate crimes in America today are not directed toward African-American or Jewish people or lesbians. They are directed at evangelical Christians."
White, meanwhile, maintains that there is a direct link between the anti-gay remarks that pepper Falwell's sermons and fund-raising literature and the long-standing epidemic of violence against gay men and lesbians. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, there have been 28 murders of gay people since Matthew Shepard's killing a year ago.
Although White and Falwell came seeking reconciliation,
they were both, in very different ways, equally lead-footed. During an appearance on "Good Morning America" Friday, Falwell apologized for judging all gay people based on the actions of a few "kooks." He also told the News and Advance newspaper that there was "no way" he would ever veer from his view that homosexuality is a sin. Though White was relentlessly
diplomatic and openhearted, imploring his followers to love Falwell and his
people as family, he went into the meeting speaking of his determination to "bring [Falwell]
truth, in love, relentlessly until he, too, is set free."
On Saturday, participants on both sides were jittery. Two hundred yards from the church, a less pacifist form of democracy was in action. Protestors jeered at meeting participants, waving signs reading "Mel wants to sodomize your sons" and "Falwell insults church with fags."
Gathered together in the church parking lot before the meeting, the Soulforce delegates, some in clerical garb, all wearing palm frond leis, attempted to cut some of the tension by launching into a hymn, as they are wont to do. "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine," the Rev. Jimmy Creech of Raleigh, N.C., sang out. A tall, slender heterosexual Methodist minister who performed a same-sex marriage after the church forbade them, Creech has the distinction of being the first man to be put on trial for defying the 200-year-old church's "social principles."
Cathy Thompson, a married, 28-year-old Lynchburg resident, was ready to roll. "I want to say to Falwell's people: This is the face of a woman whose best friend is a lesbian, and let me tell you about her and her partner and how they used to have to sneak around and let me tell you about how they love each other."
But even though hopes were high and unlikely new friends were made (many Soulforce participants attended church with some of Falwell's people the next morning), after an hour-and-a-half of speeches and a follow-up press conference, the two men, who continued to refer to each other as friends, also continued to see things differently.
At a press conference following the meeting, Falwell addressed what hadn't been discussed. "I happen to oppose same-sex marriage and we didn't talk about that," he said, nor did they address "special rights and privileges," a turn of phrase that has long irked gay rights supporters, who prefer to call theirs a struggle for "equal," not "special," rights.
Falwell also praised White for never having interfered with his preaching on the belief that the Bible condemns homosexuality. "And I hope that evangelicals might build a bridge to gay and lesbian people just as we have built a bridge to drug addicts, alcoholics and unwed mothers."
After hearing himself being cast alongside groups who are the white American Baptist equivalents of untouchables, White asserted, "religious rhetoric kills people when it builds fear towards gay people" and in a weird display of killing the enemy with kindness, lavishly praised Falwell, asserting that his openness to dialogue was "the solution."
After asserting that his "ultimate goal is to bring [homosexuals] out of the lifestyle and into the Lord," Falwell infuriated White and his supporters by introducing Michael Johnston, founder of Kerusso Ministries, a ministry that attempts to convert gay people to heterosexuality via "treatments" that the American Psychiatric Association has condemned.
Johnston spoke of his twin journeys out of drug addiction and homosexuality, which he now looks back on as equally depraved, and urged listeners to follow him. On Oct. 11, Johnston's message, given in San Francisco to coincide with National Coming Out Day, was squelched by a well-aimed blueberry pie delivered by two members of ACT UP and the Biotic Baking Brigade. This time his reception was less fruity, but no warmer. Creech labeled Johnston's comments "spiritual violence" and following the press conference a shocked White, red in the face, informed Falwell's associates that if Johnston spoke at Falwell's church service the next morning, White and his followers would walk out.
Falwell later told White he didn't know anything about Johnston or Kerusso Ministries, and asserted that Johnston had approached him that day and asked to appear at the press conference to tell his story. Likewise, Falwell asserted that the anti-gay rhetoric disseminated in his recent fund-raising letters and on his Web page (including such choice nuggets as "the America [homosexuals] demand is a sewer of moral filth ... an environment that's incredibly dangerous to our children ... a culture that despises Christian faith and morality") were neither written nor approved by him. Falwell's refusal to accept responsibility echoed a similar denial he issued last year when his organization was widely derided for stating that handbag-toting Teletubby Tinky Winky is a recruiting tool for gays.
"Every time he claims ignorance on something he does, we're going to confront him," White said firmly.
"I like Jerry. He's wrong about gays and lesbians, but he's sincere about it. We're primarily people of faith gathered here, and he still compares us to bootleggers."
When Falwell countered that "homosexuality is not a sickness, but like drinking is a sin to be forgiven," White finally delivered a swift counterpunch to this "love the sinner, hate the sin" line of reasoning. "Calling people sinners over and over again," he said simply, "becomes hate language very quickly."
Falwell's retort, delivered in the velvety Southern voice that has moved hundreds of thousands, "I don't agree with your lifestyle, I will never agree with your lifestyle, but I love you" and more significantly, added "anything that leaves the impression that we hate the sinner, we want to change that" and that "henceforth ... we love the sinner even more than we hate the sin."
Such words were a big step for Falwell, whom many believe has built his church by fueling homophobic fears, working since the fall of communism in 1990 to repeatedly invoke the specter of depraved, power-hungry homosexuals bent on world domination in order to raise funds and recruit volunteers.
Reached by telephone prior to Saturday's meeting, Wayne Besen, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington gay rights lobby, quipped, "If White could get Falwell to come around, then I think a lot more people would believe in miracles than ever before."
But in a way White did move mountains, simply by engaging Falwell on his home turf, as a fellow minister, and backed by people of faith. HRC and most other national gay and lesbian organizations are largely focused on policy issue -- training their sights on secular goals that aim to avoid any appearance of activity that the right might label an attempt to "legislate morality." Namely, they're intent on securing equal rights under the law.
Activist groups such as ACT UP have shown more interest in taking on the church, but historically only as a target for direct action, not as a partner in debate. And while many lesbians and gay men believe that organized religion is the primary source of homophobia, the church is a form of family for many gay men and lesbians, just as it is for many Americans, period. The Metropolitan Community Church, a predominantly lesbian and gay denomination that combines many Christian traditions, is the largest gay and lesbian organization in this country, and one of the most popular gay non-fiction books this decade has been Daniel Helminiak's "What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality." For some, turning away from the church, as so many gay people have done, is not an option.
After Falwell's sermon on Sunday, in which he stressed that parents should love their children, regardless of their "lifestyle," a number of the Soulforce delegates went out to lunch with members of Falwell's church -- a group that included Liberty University's president, the vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, students, faculty and Liberty's student body president, who dined with a transgender person.
During this one-on-one exchange, Soulforcers agreed, the real work of changing hearts and minds took place. The idea that homophobia can only be erased by having fearful or ignorant straight people get to know real live homosexuals and see them as plain old people is a central tenet behind much gay and lesbian organizing.
For Brian Randall, a 30-year-old gay Soulforce delegate and Liberty graduate, it was a deep and complicated homecoming. After his evangelical fundamentalist parents shuttled him into deprogramming at ex-gay ministry Exodus, Randall spent four closeted years at Liberty, living in fear that his secret would be revealed, his scholarship cut off and his parents humiliated.
Randall said Falwell told him that he loved him and extended an invitation to come back to Liberty anytime.
"There were things that disappointed me about the weekend, but I had to put them in the perspective that this has never happened before, that I've been invited back to my alma mater as an openly gay man, that I could sit down with Dr. Falwell and have him say, I'm sorry, I was wrong."
But Randall also expressed some doubt about the historic meeting's impact. "This did not end on Saturday night or Sunday morning. This is my family. These are my roots. I fully expect Dr. Falwell to return to this kind of language. This time we were here for negotiation and if it happens again, it will be for direct action. I can forgive, but I can't forget."