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Gays face Falwell, followers

First Mel and Gary moved in. Now a whole group opposed to ''spiritual violence'' will converge on Lynchburg.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 23, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- When Pinellas Point resident Bill Carpenter traveled to Lynchburg, Va., recently to plan a demonstration against the Rev. Jerry Falwell, he spotted a house for lease across from the conservative Baptist preacher's 4,000-seat church.

Carpenter immediately called the founders of Soulforce, the gay and lesbian organization he represents, and suggested that the property might serve as a strategic base for a news conference about the group's cause.

But Soulforce co-founder Mel White, a former Falwell friend and ghostwriter of the preacher's 1987 biography, had another idea. The Rev. White, 62, decided that he and his partner, Gary Nixon, 52, would move from California and set up house across the street from Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church. In the six weeks since their move, the two men have invited Falwell to dinner at their new home (he declined), have become regulars at Falwell's Sunday services and have walked hand in hand into his sanctuary. They have been received politely, if not warmly.

This week, White and his followers will take the confrontation up a notch. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, more than 200 gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender supporters will gather for a gay pride festival, vigils and picketing in front of the church Falwell has pastored for almost half a century.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, the well-known televangelist said he welcomes the group to Lynchburg.

"I certainly as a Christian minister believe that homosexuality is wrong, but our church doors are open to everyone. That is what churches do. They reach out to people who are wrong. They reach out to people who are in need of help," said Falwell, who is 69.

"We have an active ministry to gays and lesbians, as we do to many other persons in need, and on any given Sunday, our 24,000 church members meet together in five or more church services, and many of them are gay and lesbian."

Falwell, who also is chancellor of the 14,000-student Liberty University, said he is aware that White and his partner are not attending his church to take advantage of its ministry to gays and lesbians.

"They think what they are doing is okay," he said. "They will not be allowed to join the church or take any leadership post until they have received Christ and abandoned their lifestyle. But they are nonetheless loved and welcome."

Carpenter, 50, arrived in Lynchburg on Saturday. On Tuesday morning, he and an advance team from Soulforce began distributing leaflets written by White titled, "Responding to the question people are asking: How can you also consider yourselves Christians when you are also gay? What the Bible really says about homosexuality."

This is the second time Soulforce supporters have converged on Lynchburg. They pronounced a 1999 visit successful after a peacemaking meeting with members of Falwell's church and university.

"When they came in 1999, we agreed to meet with them because the subject was violence," Falwell said Tuesday. "We wanted to meet to discuss how to reduce violence against Christians, against homosexuality, against everyone.

"They have come this time asking us to agree with them that homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle. Because we take the Bible seriously, we cannot do that."

The seeming accord of 1999 was superficial, said Carpenter, who works part time as the planning and logistics coordinator for Soulforce.

"It was all on the surface, and Rev. Falwell made some statements he has reneged on. He promised to be more considerate and more concerned about his statements and the effects that they have on gay and lesbian people out in the world, and he's not doing that," Carpenter said.

"He's still making the outrageous kinds of statements that cause violence to be done to gay people. I have been to his church. ... He tends to be outrageous in his claims about homosexuality and the effects we are having on the American family."

Soulforce, which describes itself as "an interfaith movement committed to ending spiritual violence perpetuated by religious policies and teachings against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people," was founded in 1999. In the years since, Soulforce has demonstrated at Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, Southern Baptist, Methodist and Roman Catholic conventions in an attempt to change church policies regarding sexual minorities.

White, who has been married and was an evangelical Christian at the time he wrote Falwell's 1987 autobiography, kept his sexual orientation a secret until 1993, after which he wrote the book Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America. He is now an ordained minister with the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, a California-based denomination with a predominantly gay membership.

During an interview Monday, White described himself and his partner as "missionaries to the front line of the fundamentalists."

Their move to Lynchburg, he said, is meant to put a different face on homosexuality than the one Falwell preaches about.

"He's the No. 1 source of information about us. Until he sees us up close and personal, living in his neighborhood, he can go on saying that we are a threat to society," White said.

"But once he sees that we mow our grass and plant our flowers and hang the flag from the front porch, he can see we are just Americans too. Jesus said, 'Love your neighbor,' and we are now literally and figuratively Jerry's neighbor and we are going to see if he is going to love us. ... We attend every service, sitting side by side. We go to church holding hands, and they have to deal with it. I mean, straight couples hold hands. Why shouldn't we?"

Members of Falwell's congregation "haven't been unfriendly, but they haven't been particularly friendly," White said.

Falwell says the congregation is prepared to be cordial this weekend, when Soulforce supporters gather to picket his church.

"Our people will go out on the sidewalk and ask them to come in and worship with us. They will find no opposition at Thomas Road Baptist Church," Falwell said.

"We are dedicated to ministering to sinners, and since we are all sinners, Mel and his group will find open arms and loving people."

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