A Candid Look at the Journey to Lynchburg


by: Larry E. Ellis


The day was beautiful, as lovely as any autumn day I had seen. Driving along US 29 I reflected on what put us on this path to Lynchburg. My partner, Jim, read the newspaper, Jimmy Creech napped in the back seat and I was left alone with my thoughts.

When we began the eight week "Journey into SoulForce" last June with Rev. Mel White, his first email said: "I want to see if NONVIOLENCE offers us a new/old way to end the tragic anti-homosexual campaign by religious leaders who are sincerely wrong about God's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered children." I had no idea that eight weeks later he would say, "we're going to Lynchburg to meet with Jerry Falwell!"

As the time of the meeting neared, at least eight groups had filed for permits to protest the meeting. Both anti-gay protestors, the likes of Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist church, and pro-gay protestors, like Bob Kunst of the Oral Majority, had demanded equal time to taunt Jerry Falwell, Mel White and their respective delegations. Protestors? That's no problem. After all, Fred Phelps had picketed the church where Jimmy Creech co-officiated at our Holy Union last spring. That was mostly a "non-event." No one really paid attention. But then Mel had to go and ruin the moment by saying there was potential for violence but that we'd have police protection. Even with the prospect of potential violence before me, there was a strong, even visceral, conviction that I had do this. My head chided, "have you totally lost touch with reality," but somewhere deep inside I knew I had to listen to an inner urging that this is was an appointment with destiny.

Beyond the possibility of violence or injury to any of us, however, was the potential to meet with this giant of a religious leader (among conservatives) in person. Jerry Falwell had declared plainly that we (LGBT) are sinners, perverts, and hell-bound! To show him who we really are, we had already sent Jerry pictures and letters telling our personal stories. From my teen years through adulthood, I had experienced his brand of fundamentalist theology in my own churches, both those I attended and most of those I pastored. Over the years, I felt the sting of those words repeatedly. Not only was I a member of a fundamentalist church while growing up, but we were Pentecostal and labeled "a holiness church" to boot! Can you increase Jerry's rhetoric exponentially? It was just such rhetoric that convinced me that my sexuality was a mistake and the only way to correct it was to run from it, hide it, ignore it and eventually attempt suicide (twice) to escape it.

By the time we arrived at First Christian Church, our host church for SoulForce Central, and began the opening service I was convinced this was the only place to be! We were moved by testimonies from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered community. I wept and lifted my hands as David North and Gospel Celebration sang "Whosoever will, let them come!" The ex-wife of a gay pastor shared briefly, about how they had moved beyond their marriage and how God had blessed them with new partners and a continuing friendship with each other. Her ex-husband stood by her side as she shared with us. There was a memorial to 100 individuals, including Mathew Shepherd, Billy Jack Gaither, James Byrd, and the students of Columbine High School who were victims of violent hate crimes. We celebrated Sabbath with Jewish attendees and even had the Rabbi's permission for them to "break (their own) Sabbath" to attend with us. A mother shared her story of grief at the loss of her lesbian daughter and the fact that they never reconciled before her daughter committed suicide.

Saturday, the day of the forum, began early with a breakfast provided by the host church. Mel White and others took us through the steps to non-violent activism to cap off the 8 week, 17 lesson SoulForce Journey we had already completed. There was much discussion, sharing of personal stories, words of encouragement, and finally, a lesson in how to respond in case of a personal attack. The protestors were outside SoulForce Central and were certain to be present as we converged upon the Thomas Road Baptist Church gymnasium where we would come face to face with Jerry Falwell and his delegates.

Men like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, D. James Kennedy and James Dobson judge us by a minority. Jerry Falwell admitted that he "judged the (community) by 5% of the kooks." These men believe we do not want to change, and we do not, but for different reasons than they can understand. These men are convinced that we are steeped in perversion and cannot disencumber ourselves in order to fully "come to Christ." Having come from their ranks, I now understand that even though the rhetoric is harsh, they (most of them) have our spiritual welfare at heart. They are just motivated by misconception and misinformation. They have stereotyped us, the many, by a few. They do not consider us "Christian" and cannot conceive that we can know Christ or seek a spiritual walk. Their words, no matter how refined they may be, engender violence against us.

Knowing all this, I still did not know what to expect as we walked into that gymnasium. Somewhere between dread of a possible verbal bashing and hopeful expectation for a change in attitude, I found a peace that passed my own understanding. Outside, approximately 25-30 people were shouting angrily at Jerry Falwell and Mel White. Some condemned Jerry Falwell for having "faggots" in his buildings and were confident his church would burn to the ground by morning! Others were angry with Mel White for bringing this group to persuade Jerry Falwell and shouted that we would all burn in hell together. Pro-gay protestors argued that what we do or believe is none of Falwell's business and that Mel had sold us (the LGBT community) out to meet with him.

I'd like to say that these two men paid a price to make this event a reality. Mel White never flinched in the face of criticism and was never less than a loving leader. He did not once criticize Jerry Falwell even though the plans changed almost by the minute during the last few hours before the meeting. He had a vision that this meeting was going to take place and he would see it through regardless. Jerry Falwell found opposition in his own camp, even to the point of being a victim of his own brand of fundamentalist theology. Someone challenged him on sitting at a meal with "fornicators" according to I Corinthians 5:10. It is true that we only had bottled water, but more importantly, dialogue occurred between both sides.

While we cannot write about what actually occurred in that meeting, the world did hear a reasonable account at the press conference during which Jerry Falwell mentioned several times that he would never change his theology to accept homosexuality - (for him) it is a sin. However, he did say he had apologized to Mel White and the 200 delegates. He indicated that he had been wrong in many things that he said and that he would monitor his speech for anti-gay statements as well as anything that went out in his name or in the name of the ministry. Each side apologized for "hate speech" that may have been spoken in the past, and agreed to monitor future communications in order to prevent that from occurring again.

Sunday worship service was wonderful. Again, we had to pass through the protestors shouting and waving posters. Inside, the sanctuary was packed to capacity. I cannot tell you what an incredible experience it was to sit in that service, one of approximately 200 lgbt delegates, surrounded by all those Baptists and enjoy their fellowship and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The choir sang a powerful medley. A soloist ministered in special song. Jerry Falwell greeted us and had us stand to be recognized, offering a warm and heartfelt welcome. His message was a continuation of a series he had been preaching from Proverbs.

Most significant for me is that Jerry Falwell encouraged parents to love their children unconditionally, even if they were gay or lesbian. He went on record as saying he would continue to love his own son if he came out to him as gay. He also emphasized that, "We're to be lovers of all men and women."

In an earlier service, Michael Johnston of Kerusso Ministries spoke to the congregation. Michael is a self-proclaimed "ex-gay" who described his experience with drugs and homosexuality, almost linking them inseparably. He described his former life using terms such as "perverted" and "depraved." It is our impression that Johnston was to have spoken at both morning services, but Mel White negotiated with Falwell to prevent us from sitting through such abuse. After the service, a reporter asked me how Michael Johnston's message affected me. I responded that Michael's journey is personal to him. He may feel that he has gone "straight," but it has no impact on me. "Nothing Michael Johnston can say will speak louder than the years of depression, self-loathing, suicide attempts - in short, the pain - that I experienced before coming out." When I told her that I was a "born-again" Christian, had a right relationship with God and that I am proud of who I am as a gay Christian, she smiled an enormous smile of approval.

Lynchburg is behind us. As I reflect on the good and the bad, I am impressed mostly by the tremendous effort of Mel White for standing on our behalf and in the face of opposition from both sides, for seeing this through to closure. I am moved by Jerry Falwell's leadership in taking the lead among conservative Christians to allow this dialogue to occur. I'm not sure how this affected others who attended, but for me there was a great healing and spiritual renewal. I am reminded that God still has men and women who will follow their hearts and stand for their conviction, even in the face of great personal cost and adversity. More importantly, I am convinced that God is on our side!

Copyright ©1999 by the author


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