Sunday, October 24, 1999

Hecklers: Falwell betrays his calling

Falwell, gay group open new dialogue

The forum was aimed at toning down the violent rhetoric -- not accepting homosexuality.


   LYNCHBURG -- To a couple of dozen protesters on the street outside Thomas Road Baptist Church on Saturday afternoon, the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Mel White were a couple of traitors.

    To many of the 400 or so invited guests inside the Lynchburg Christian School gym behind the church's sanctuary, they were heroes who received enthusiastic applause, standing ovations and vigorous amens.

    The event was a meeting that both evangelical Christian Falwell and gay-activist Christian White were calling "historic" even before it began -- an anti-violence forum aimed at toning down the rhetoric in the "culture wars."

    The two ministers, longtime acquaintances, each invited 200 participants to join them in what both described as only the opening discussion in a bid to avert continued violence against homosexuals and evangelical Christians.

    "We have a problem. Hate speech leads to violence," White said at a news conference after the forum. "How to define it? Anything that leads to anger, to fear, to violent action."

    Nevertheless, it was evident at the end of the 1-hour meeting that there remains a gulf between the men's understanding of precisely what constitutes hate speech.

    Acknowledging that, Falwell said they will attempt to address the issue with "continued conversation," perhaps as soon as a couple of months from now.

    White said he will henceforth judge all his speech against a standard he takes from Falwell: "Is it true? Is it loving? Does it need to be said?"

    White, with his partner, Gary Nixon, leads a California-based organization called Soulforce, which is devoted to applying "the principles of nonviolence" to help change rhetoric and actions they see as leading to violence against homosexuals.

    White ghost-wrote two books with Falwell in the mid-1980s, including Falwell's autobiography, "Strength for the Journey." White had not acknowledged his homosexuality at that time.

    Falwell is founder of both the Thomas Road church, where he is senior pastor and of Liberty University, where he is chancellor.

    White was particularly effusive in his praise of Falwell for his "courage" in initiating and providing a site for the forum.

    Falwell likewise lauded White's refusal to ask him to change his stand against homosexual behavior -- only to temper his language in reference to it.

    The two actually began exchanging public apologies for past transgressions -- instances of what they considered hateful speech about the other -- in a series of media appearances that picked up pace in the days preceding the event.

    The forum attracted the kind of media attention that was more common during the televangelism scandals of a decade and a half ago, when Falwell's Moral Majority movement was in full sway.

    The major television networks, as well as national publications -- from the Village Voice in New York to the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News -- were on hand to record the event, the actual proceedings of which were closed to the public and press.

    While both men said they have been criticized for participating in the discussion, the most vocal and vehement opposition came from a few small groups of protesters outside.

    Bob Kunst, president of a Florida-based organization called Oral Majority, asserted that White does not represent mainstream gays and lesbians and has sold out their cause by agreeing to meet with Falwell.

    Just across the driveway, Fred Phelps of Kansas held up signs proclaiming that Matthew Shepard, a gay student killed last October in Wyoming, "is in hell." Falwell, he said, is betraying his calling to preach the Gospel by not condemning homosexual behavior more strongly.

    Both Kunst and Phelps are frequent protesters at events that draw national media attention to gay and lesbian issues.

    Behind Kunst, Anna Sparks and Sue Stroud of Roanoke stood outside to support the discussion going on at the church.

    "God loves us all," Sparks said. "Jesus didn't turn his back on people."

    At the conclusion of the forum, the Rev. Catherine Houchins said she was encouraged by it but that she will be "anxiously listening to hear" the changes in rhetoric. Houchins, an invited participant in the dialogue, is pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of the Blue Ridge in Roanoke.

    Although no specific plans were announced, Falwell and White said they expect similar conversations in other places in the future.

    "If this is of God, it will not fail," said the Rev. Jimmy Creech, a United Methodist minister who faces disciplinary charges in his denomination for officiating at a same-sex wedding. "Maybe someday we will realize it is not of God ... but we have to give this a chance for God to work through us."


    CODY LOWE can be reached

   at 981-3425 or



    LYNCHBURG -- Conservative evangelist Jerry Falwell and his former ghostwriter turned gay activist, the Rev. Mel White, met Saturday in a school gym with a group of their respective supporters for a heart-to-heart dialogue on their differences -- and the need to end violence aimed at gays and Christians.

    Ignoring the shouts of about 40 anti-gay Baptists who demonstrated outside, 200 members of Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church and 200 followers of White's gay rights organization, Soulforce, mingled around tables set up on the basketball court of Lynchburg Christian Academy.

   The Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan., whose congregation also taunted gays at the funeral of slain gay college student Matthew Shepard, said Falwell is a hypocrite for meeting with the Rev. Mel White, a gay minister, and his followers.

    ""Falwell used to teach the Bible word for word, now he's going off and meeting with these fags and going against everything he's ever taught,'' Phelps said.

    ""He always says 'hate the sin, but love the sinner,' but it's impossible to separate the two. Does a judge send the crime or the criminal to jail?''

    Given his past anti-gay statements, visiting Falwell's church might normally be akin to walking into the lion's den for many gays and lesbians. But Saturday it became an oasis of Christian fellowship.

    ""We appreciate the Rev. Falwell's hospitality and his seeming change of heart,'' said Bob Henrikson, of Harrisonburg, who with his wife, Shirley, was a Soulforce delegate. The couple's son is gay, he said, and they ""want to contribute to the end of hate and violence. We're not here to argue, we're here to reach some kind of understanding.''

    ""I hope the world will see that the folks at Thomas Road Baptist Church are open-minded, even though they don't agree with the stand the other side takes,'' said Kim Graham, 45, athletic director at Falwell's Liberty University.

    Beige curtains gave the gym the appearance of a formal banquet room. The tables were covered in yellow linen and decorated with fake autumn leaves. Soulforce put a small, white porcelain angel at each place setting. Pictures of people killed violently for their beliefs or lifestyle graced the low platform from which White and Falwell spoke.

    Falwell cited the September shootings at a Texas church and recent school shootings in which Christians were targeted. The meeting room was filled with pictures of 100 people who have died as a result of hate crimes.

    The afternoon meeting was aimed at demonstrating the Christian love and tolerance that both men say America badly needs.

    Members of each group were paired together at the tables and encouraged to get to know each other. The original plan called for the delegates to have dinner together, but organizers decided not to eat mainly because some evangelicals believe the Bible prohibits Christians from sharing a meal with ""sexually immoral'' people.

    ""We decided it was not worth distracting from the purpose of this meeting to hold a debate over whether it was appropriate to serve food or not to serve food,'' said Falwell's spokesman, Mark DeMoss.

    During the meeting, according to DeMoss, the conservative televangelist and White each apologized for hateful speech directed against the other side. After apologizing ""for not always loving homosexuals,'' Falwell added, ""I know that's not good enough for some of you, but it's more than some of you expected... . I hope you'll find me showing more love for homosexuals than I have in the past.''

    White then took the podium. He presented Falwell with a framed cartoon showing him seated next to a ""Mr. T. Winky,'' a joking reference to the alert Falwell's ministry put out earlier this year warning that a character on TV's ""Teletubbies'' was gay.

    ""You have changed not your view of homosexuality, but of homosexuals,'' DeMoss quoted White as saying. ""When the gay community tries to demonize Jerry Falwell, I'm not going to let them get away with it.''

    Ron Godwin, Falwell's executive associate, said Falwell is ""reminding his constituency -- Protestant Christians -- that we need to get back to Christianity 101, which is demonstrating love for those with whom we have differences. Nobody listens to you until you demonstrate you care about them. And we think many Christians have not been demonstrating that caring attitude.''

    In its absence, Godwin added, ""the culture of violence and hate has proliferated.''

    White, an author and minister with the Metropolitan Community Churches, ghost wrote Falwell's autobiography before White admitted being gay.

    Delegates from both groups thought the meeting was good.

    ""It shows that we could come together and we could agree to love each other no matter what our stance is on certain issues,'' said Wesley Lewis, a 20-year-old graduate of Falwell's Liberty University. ""I understand Mel White and his group a lot better.''

    The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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