Getting Down to Fundamentals With Soulforce and Falwell
By Natalie Davis | Posted 11/10/1999
There’s going to be a cold breeze blowing through hell on Oct. 23.
That’s the day the Rev. Jerry Falwell and 200 of his followers sit down with the openly gay Rev. Mel White and 200 of his supporters in Lynchburg, Va. Imagine: a Religious Right leader who established his national notoriety in part by bashing homosexuals with words, meeting with 200 pro-gay people at his own church. Such a gathering would have been unthinkable a few years, or even a few months, ago. But under the quizzical gaze of the American public, the scrutinizing eyes of the media, and the oftentimes disapproving glare of both pro- and anti-gay activists, the meeting happens.
Sitting in the sanctuary of Lynchburg’s First Christian Church on Friday, Oct. 22, I am surrounded by Mel White’s 200. David North and the Gospel Celebration, a group from the Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, D.C. (MCC-DC), pounds out a reworked version of “Shout,” to which they’ve added new lyrics: “God loves Jerry Falwell/ God loves Mel White/ God loves everyone.”
First Christian has agreed to host this gathering of Soulforce Inc., the California-based nonprofit organization founded by White and his partner, Gary Nixon, that fights for gay civil rights and against bigotry, guided by the principles of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. White welcomes the assembled, who have come to Virginia from 30 states and England, and thanks them for taking a huge leap of faith with him. Lynchburg Mayor Pete Warren, a First Christian member, opines that the weekend will be good for his city and the entire nation. Rodney Powell, who fought on the front lines with King in the 1960s and has since come out, speaks to the crowd. So does the Rev. Jimmy Creech, soon to be tried for the second time by the United Methodist Church for the crime of blessing a same-sex union. (He was narrowly acquitted the first time.) Gary Rimar, a Jewish man from Michigan–breaking the Sabbath for “a greater good,” he says–shares a Hebrew prayer.
After the speechifying, about 100 black-and-white photographs are brought to the front of the church. They show the faces of victims of hate: Matthew Shepard, the gay Wyoming college student who was pistol-whipped and left to die. James Byrd Jr., the African-American man dragged to death behind a truck in Texas. Victims of the Columbine High School massacre. King. Gandhi. Christ.
The delegates–gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and heterosexual people who have dedicated themselves to White and Soulforce–are here to fight hate. But they say they are determined to meet their putative foe–Jerry Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church, host of TV’s Old Time Gospel Hour, founder of the now-defunct conservative group the Moral Majority–on his own turf, with forgiveness and love.
The convocation was viewed warily by many from both sides. Hard-core anti-gay forces characterized the summit as a slap in the face to the traditional Christian church, a step toward the destruction of all they hold dear. Some pro-gay groups consider it sucking up to those they believe would welcome their destruction. But to those here, the meeting represented just one thing: a chance to build bridges of tolerance and respect.
Saturday morning in Lynchburg dawned bright but cold. A fellow journalist and I drive to First Christian–dubbed “Soulforce Central” for the weekend–and take stock of this southwestern Virginia city of 68,000.
Lynchburg seems poised between two worlds. There’s the progressive, culture-filled Lynchburg, a city with an active symphony and theater company, trendy eateries and shops, and, it seems, a thoroughly integrated population. Beside it stands Jerry Falwell’s Lynchburg, a proud Southern city where the reverend founded Liberty University and owns TV and radio stations, where God and traditional family values rule. Riding along the tree-lined streets, I marvel at how clean the city is, how beautiful the antebellum houses are. And I marvel at the juxtaposition of the two Lynchburgs–between art-deco shops, bistros, and fast-food drive-thrus are dry-cleaning stores and auto-repair garages whose marquees proclaim messages from Scripture.
Pulling into the parking lot at Soulforce Central, I see a line of protesters with signs: MEL WANTS TO SODOMIZE YOUR SONS. GOD HATES FAGS. JUDAS FALWELL. MATT IS IN HELL. Most of the demonstrators are from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Their leader–and father or grandfather to most of his congregation–is the Rev. Fred Phelps, who’s become notorious for protesting at the funerals of gay AIDS victims and at a memorial for Shepard.
I ask the lanky, cowboy-hatted activist for an interview. “Is this for a homosexual newspaper?” he asks, ice-blue eyes flashing. I tell him no, and he quietly explains his reason for picketing: “We’re here to inject a wee bit of sanity and truth into Falwell’s insane orgy of sodomite lies. God’s not gonna be in there when White and Falwell get together. They’re gonna say, “We love you. God loves you. All is well. Anally copulate your brains out and you’ll be all right anyway. It’s just an ordinary sin like pride.’
“Falwell used to be a good preacher. He used to preach what I preach,” Phelps continues. “He believed that God doesn’t just hate the sin, he hates the sinner. He didn’t just send the sin to hell, he sent the sinner to hell. In those days, he believed the truth–that fags could not repent. He was right. But now, for lucre, he’s teaching things that he ought not. So, he needs to be preached to. That’s my job.”
Standing beside Phelps on the picket line is one of his grandsons, 15-year-old Josh Phelps-Roper. Phelps-Roper, who’s been taking part in his granddad’s protests since he was 6, holds a sign that reads DYKE SIN and depicts two stick figures simulating oral sex. It’s suggested that he is perhaps too young to be holding that sign. He laughs nervously and nods in agreement.
Like his grandfather, Phelps-Roper says he believes homosexuality is sin, but there are differences between the two. When asked if God really hates “fags,” he replies, “I don’t hate anybody. I love fags. I wouldn’t come here and preach them this great truth unless I loved them. I don’t want them to go to hell, and I believe that’s what’s going to happen unless they repent.”
It’s Sooooooulforce!” David North booms, Don Cornelius-style, as he and his band perform rousing gospel tunes inside First Christian as the White forces nosh on bagels and prepare for Soulforce training. As a Buddhist delegate offers words of wisdom, my mind floats to a conversation I had over dinner the night before with the Rev. Karla Fleshman. Fleshman and I had met years earlier through the Baltimore chapter of the direct-action group Lesbian Avengers; she introduced me to my church, MCC-Baltimore. Since then, she’s become the first out lesbian to graduate from Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia and has recently been approved for ordination in the Metropolitan Community Church. Now a member of MCC-Philadelphia, Fleshman plans to use Soulforce principles to fight homophobia through love.
“It’s easy to hate a group; it’s harder to hate an individual person,” she’d said at dinner. “We do a lot of tilling before the fruits of the spirit come into play. We’re tilling this weekend.”
On this Saturday morning, chief tiller White takes the podium and announces that the weekend will focus on lessening the anti-gay and anti-fundamentalist rhetoric that has been fueling the nation’s war over homosexuality. “Any time we speak or write something,” he says, “we must ask ourselves three questions: Is it true? Is it loving? Does it need to be said? And those questions, my friends, come from Jerry Falwell.”
The delegates applaud. Ever since Falwell, in an Oct. 22 interview on Good Morning America, apologized for the words he and Jerry Falwell Ministries have used against homosexuals, the Soulforcers have been inclined to react more lovingly–if still warily–to him. White is careful to make sure everyone here knows this weekend is not just his doing, but Falwell’s as well.
You could call it a miracle that this summit ever took place. That it happened at all is largely due to the life lived by White.
Now 59, White grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household in California. Early on, he realized there was something “different” about him. But as he attended Christian schools, earned his doctorate, and taught at a seminary, he was instructed that what made him different–his homosexuality–was not only sin, but the worst kind of sin.
White fought back as best he could. He married and became a father. And he punished himself brutally.
“I went through 25 years of shock therapy and aversive training and psychotherapy and exorcism–I did everything in my power to live up to what I thought was true: that you can be reoriented sexually,” he says. “I was hating myself, and I was terrified, because I thought I was a sinner. My church and my family told me, directly and indirectly, that being homosexual is the worst thing you could be. There were many times I contemplated suicide, and by the time I finally did try to commit suicide, when I had a wife and family and thought, This is going to destroy everything, none of the people could come to me and say, “You can be gay and Christian.’ So I was surrounded by that kind of lie.”
The situation intensified in the 1980s, when the closeted young clergyman found himself walking the most powerful corridors of evangelical Christianity. White had found his niche in media–writing and television production–and secured jobs (through a publisher) writing for Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, Billy Graham, and Falwell. He ghostwrote Robertson’s and Falwell’s autobiographies. Falwell once called White the best writer he knew.
White was making an excellent living as Boswell to the nation’s best-known evangelists. He was also in love with a man. (In the mid-80s, after White’s suicide attempt, he and his wife, Lyla, came to a conclusion: White was indeed gay, and needed to live his life honestly. They divorced; not long afterward White began his relationship with Gary Nixon.) He knew something had to give. With the Cold War in twilight, his bosses’ focus was shifting from the threat of Communism to homosexuals and homosexuality, and the duplicity became too much for White to handle. In 1991, he stopped writing for Falwell and Co. and in 1993, he became dean of Dallas’ Cathedral of Hope, the world’s largest gay and lesbian church and a member of MCC, a worldwide pro-gay denomination. He made his sexuality public in a sermon on National Coming Out Day in 1993.
In 1994, White published his autobiography, Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America. Since then, he has used his roots in evangelism and media to spread the word that it’s OK–indeed, a blessing from God, he insists–to be gay and Christian. He took on the unsalaried position of MCC justice minister, which allowed him to crisscross the nation, telling his story to church groups and anyone who would listen. He realized change would have to start with the institution chiefly responsible for much of the anti-gay rhetoric that he maintains destroys the lives of countless people.
“They’re causing death,” White says, “and Jesus warned his disciples that if you hurt the little ones, it’s better that a millstone be placed around your neck and you be dumped into the sea. He said to the disciples, “Don’t hurt the little ones!’ And I’m saying to Pat Robertson and to Jerry Falwell and the rest of them, “You are hurting the little ones! It’s your misuse of the Bible that’s causing the death of my brothers and sisters who are young. . . . They must stop it, because blood is on their hands.”
After years of estrangement, during which White says he attempted to contact Falwell repeatedly but got no response, the two began communicating again earlier this year. White pressed Falwell to scale back his rhetoric on homosexuality. Falwell refused to budge–his congregation and constituency expected to hear gays vilified from his pulpit, and focusing on the “homosexual agenda” and its call for “special rights” (such as anti-discrimination laws and the right to marry) made for successful fund-raising campaigns.
This past August, however, Falwell changed his mind, or at least changed his answer. He had largely disappeared from the media radar, except for embarrassments–when one of his publications “outed” Teletubby Tinky Winky as gay, or when Falwell was quoted as identifying the Antichrist as Jewish. He needed some good press.
At the same time, it’s likely that Falwell softened because White had done the same. After determining that rallies, marches, and staged protests (like the hunger strikes he had used in a futile campaign to stop Robertson from targeting gays) had accomplished little, White began to study the passive resistance Gandhi used to fight for the poor in India and South Africa and the Gandhi-inspired nonviolence of Martin Luther King’s civil-rights activism. Gandhi called his tactics satyagraha, which roughly translates into “soul force.” White and Nixon adopted the name for their organization, and White changed tactics with Falwell, confronting his old friend with the words White says sent queers the message that God hates them and sent others the message that violence against queers was OK. In August, Falwell agreed to meet with White and his delegation.
White says it doesn’t matter why Falwell agreed to the meeting: “Soulforce teaches us not to question our opponent’s motivations. We go by their words and actions. We take on suffering, and try to prevent our opponent from suffering. We confront their untruth with truth, and if they do not accept truth, we move to nonviolent direct action.”
And so, on this Saturday night, the delegates will show up at Thomas Road for the big event, the Anti-Violence Forum, in their Sunday best, bearing gifts, including donations for Lynchburg’s Habitat for Humanity and donations to a local food bank. (“Why are we bringing gifts of food and housing?” White asks. “Because if we can get over this homosexual issue, we can get about the business of God.”) They will meet members of Falwell’s church and engage them one-on-one. They will hear about fundamentalist Christians’ lives as they break bread, and tell them about gay and lesbian lives. Queers and fundamentalists who disagree on the sinfulness of homosexuality will–they hope–unite to affirm that God loves everyone.
God may love everyone, but apparently God doesn’t eat with everyone. mDinner was always the sticking point, even before the gathering. During the planning stages, prospective attendees received e-mails saying dinner was on, then off, then on again. When I left Baltimore on Oct. 21, the word was there’d be a buffet supper. When I got to Lynchburg the word was there would be snacks. When I walked into Thomas Road’s gymnasium, I discovered that my dinner with Jerry would be pint bottles of Poland spring water and plastic cups filled with ice. Thank goodness I’d had a turkey sandwich in the room set up for press.
The reason for the flinty repast, according to Falwell, is that 1 Corinthians 5 prohibits Christians from extending hospitality to unrepentant sinners, including the sexually immoral, those guilty of greed, and slanderers. (Does that mean Falwell saved the Soulforcers, who don’t believe homosexuality is sin, from the sin of dining with the man who they say slanders them?) The Soulforcers accept this stoically; it’s part of the organization’s principles to accept suffering silently, even gratefully. It is not the last of the evening’s surprises.
Before the forum is officially closed to press, I spot Michael Johnston. I’ve spoken with Johnston before–he’s president of Kerusso Ministries, a Florida-based organization dedicated to changing homosexuals into heterosexuals; I interviewed him for a story I did earlier this year on the ex-gay movement (“The Other Side of the Rainbow,” CP, 3/3 and 3/10). Johnston himself is ex-gay (and also HIV+). He speaks at churches and gatherings to spread the word to gays that they can change if they follow Jesus Christ. His orations, in the view of the gay community, drip with anti-gay sentiment. I wonder why he is here, at what is billed as an Anti-Violence Forum.
The answer soon becomes clear at the press conference that follows the closed forum. White and Falwell take their places on a dais in the front of the Carter Sanctuary, Thomas Road’s primary worship space. They are joined by Jimmy Creech; Mary Lou Wallner, whose lesbian daughter killed herself after her mother rejected her; Mark Eide, the dean of students at Falwell’s Liberty University; and Johnston. It is not clear that Johnston was expected; there is no chair, nameplate, or microphone for him at the dais. A Falwell Ministries staffer quickly rustles up another chair and mic.
Everyone says his or her piece. Falwell apologizes again for his harsh anti-gay rhetoric, says it is time “we love the sinner more than we hate the sin,” but repeatedly underscores his conviction that homosexuality is a sin. Johnston talks about violence against Christians by gays, citing the September murder of 13-year-old Jesse Dirkhising in Arkansas, for which two reportedly gay men have been charged, and his own experience at an Oct. 10 National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day rally in San Francisco (an ex-gay event he founded to counter National Coming Out Day), at which Johnston was hit in the head with a blueberry pie. Creech denounces the continuing repetition of the word “sin” and Johnston’s surprise appearance, calling both examples of “spiritual violence” against gays.
Afterward, White is visibly angry. At a debriefing session for the Soulforce 200 back at First Christian, he struggles to contain his emotions, complains that “we were ambushed” by Falwell. Many of the Soulforcers let loose their pent-up feelings. With quiet dignity, they endured the nondinner; being snubbed by some of Falwell’s delegates (primarily Liberty students and church leaders), who would not talk to homosexual and transgender delegates; and Falwell’s explanation that he didn’t know the guests would find Johnston’s appearance offensive. Now came further insult: Johnston would speak at Sunday services at Thomas Road.
White asks the Soulforcers how they should respond. Many believe they should boycott the 11 A.M. service, but ultimately they agree to attend as planned.
Sunday morning is brilliant and beautiful as we drive up Candler’s Mountain, which Lynchburg residents I spoke with at a gas station the night before disparagingly referred to as “Falwell’s country.” Nearby is Liberty University; right on Thomas Road are the massive Carter Sanctuary, the Pate Chapel, Falwell’s Christian Academy, and a neighboring Falwell-owned preschool. And there are plenty of protesters too. Fred Phelps’ crew is on hand, as is the Rev. W.N. Otwell of Heritage Baptist Church of Mt. Enterprise, Texas, complaining that Falwell is “in bed with the sodomites.”
There are pro-gay protesters too. Bob Kunst of Miami’s Oral Majority, best known for taking on Anita Bryant’s anti-gay campaigns in the 1970s, wears a tiny Tinky Winky on a string around his neck and expresses disgust with White for coming here. “Falwell and White are doing this for themselves, for the publicity,” he says. “This won’t help gays and lesbians.”
I also meet four young women from nearby Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, two of them lesbian. They say they’re here to show encouragement to the Soulforcers. One of the lesbians tells me that Lynchburg gays are largely closeted: “There is no lesbian and gay community here.” Kunst hears the comment and adds that there’s no gay bar either.
The Carter Sanctuary is crowded and gigantic. Thomas Road Baptist has 22,000 members and a $100 million budget. It’s easy to see how the money is spent–the massive choir is exquisitely robed in blue, there is a full orchestra in place, and the theaterlike church is illuminated by klieg lights.
Having arrived early, I see Johnston preaching from the pulpit. As promised, the Soulforcers sit without complaint. Finally, Falwell takes the spotlight and begins the 11 A.M. service. He praises Johnston (and pitches the ex-gay preacher’s video, which is on sale in the church lobby) and has the congregation give a round of applause for Mel White and the Soulforce delegation. And in the resonant, smooth tone I’ve heard for so long on TV, Falwell preaches.
“Two hundred persons from Mel’s constituency–he prefers the word “friends’–and 200 of my friends had a most fruitful meeting,” Falwell intones. “Mel never asked me to modify my preaching or what I believe, which is that heterosexual behavior is God-ordained, homosexual behavior is not. It has nothing to do with the love factor involved; we are to be lovers of all men and women. We said that we have not tried as hard as we should and we are, from our side–speaking only for Jerry Falwell and whomever else–we’re going to do everything we know in the future, prayerfully, teachings, preaching, writings, etc., reach out in love to every man, every woman for whom Christ died.”
Yes, he says homosexuality is a sin, but he doesn’t belabor the point. His sermon focuses on Proverbs 13 and living a good Christian life, and on love. It’s an amazing service, made even more amazing for me when I’m joined by my ex-gay friend Randy Thomas, and when a Thomas Road member sitting to my right lends me a Bible.
Afterward, a number of Soulforcers go to lunch with fundamentalists they have met at the forum. Here, White’s philosophy and the attendant “fruits of the spirit” that Karla Fleshman had talked about Friday night begin to become apparent.
Pamela Garretson, a 33-year-old wildlife biologist from Catonsville, is on a high. Earlier, she’d been upset by the snubs she’d felt during the forum. But today, she runs to me and exclaims that her lunch was a success. “We talked about our lives, and it was great,” Garretson says. “We even exchanged addresses and phone numbers and e-mail addresses so we can stay in touch.”
That story is repeated by many, including Sara Anne Sherrard, a transgendered woman from Charlottesville, Va. Her forum experience was disappointing, she says, but Sunday was much better; she made connections with individual fundamentalists. “We are all people of God,” she says, “and it was so wonderful to be accepted as such.”
I understand her feelings. The night before, when I’d met Falwell, he was gracious and welcoming, inquiring aboutCity Paper, introducing me to his wife, Macel, and asking about my family. I told him that I’d watched his Old Time Gospel Hour from time to time since my childhood and often felt disturbed by his preaching about homosexuals. When I told him it takes a big man to admit he’s made a mistake, he shrugged. “Many of the words I used or my ministries used were unfair; Mel made me see that. So I really don’t have a choice but to apologize and try to do better in future. It’s the Christian thing to do.”
At weekend’s end, White is exhausted–and convinced something good has happened, and is happening. “If the pastors in the rest of the country would preach like Falwell preached today, it would be OK,” he says. “We still need to change their hearts, so they’ll have nothing to say. But today was as close as you’ll come. You can’t get closer. . . .
“Our goals were to renew our souls by living up to Soulforce principles–which we did–and to transform society, a process we’ve just begun. This weekend was only a baby step forward, I know, but tomorrow, we will see a brighter day.”