I offer my sincere condolences to his family and those closest to Jerry Falwell. They have lost a father, friend, and pastor. To many, he was a leader, a voice, and a statesman. To many others, he was a target, a raspy voice of clashing cymbals, and despised. He was loved by many, hated by many. There is one thing everyone can agree on. He made an impact.
Falwell died today at the age of 73. This much we all know. I confess that I have some rather mixed emotions regarding his death. At first, many of us in the GLBT community have an immediate reaction of cheer and delight at his demise. But that’s all too easy isn’t it?
After all, didn’t he say some horrible things about gay people? Wasn’t this the Jerry Falwell that was so aghast that one of the Teletubbies might have been gay? Poor Tinky-Winky never knew what hit him. Those of us who are familiar with the fall of Jim Bakker remember well how Falwell took over PTL from Bakker and then snatched it out from under Bakker’s feet. If you haven’t read it yet, I strongly recommend Bakker’s wonderful book, “I Was Wrong.”
Yes, there is much for which we can be critical of Falwell and the things he’s said. One of the most verbally violent things that he ever uttered was when he said that the ACLU, feminists, abortionists and homosexuals were the direct cause of 9/11. The entire country was rightfully outraged at such an irresponsible proclamation.
I was told of his death this afternoon by a local newspaper reporter who asked for my opinion of his passing. I asked if I could call him back. After all, what on earth could I possibly say? I’ve never met Falwell, and I’ve never even watched one of his broadcasts for more than ten minutes. For me to praise or criticize him in any way would have just been irresponsible.
A friend of mine regaled me for quite some time today about all of the horrific things that Falwell said. He echoed the thoughts of most of my activist colleagues when he thought that the televangelist was in an especially hot pit of hell. I realized then just how polarizing someone like Falwell could be.
Even then, I couldn’t justify blasting the founding pastor of the world famous Thomas Road Baptist Church. Yes, he started the “Moral Majority” in the 1970s in response to the fast-growing gay rights movement. I still believe that the “religious right” is neither religious nor right. But no matter what my opinions are, millions of people across the world have been affected by this one man… for better or for worse.
Through it all, there’s one group of activists that refuses to take the “burn in hell” stance. Rev. Mel White, who was once a ghost writer for both Falwell and fellow televangelist Pat Robertson, has taken the high road. White was quoted in an email from Soulforce, the organization which he founded in 1999:
“Upon hearing the news of Rev. Falwell’s death, White said “It breaks my heart to think that Jerry died without ever discovering the truth about God’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children. I sincerely hope that one day his school and his church will have a change of heart.”
I really don’t think anyone could possibly be more eloquent. Very few people knew Falwell’s writing better than Mel White. When he came out of the closet as a gay man, White was told by Falwell that he needed therapy. Soulforce has since been a leading proponent of GLBT activism by following the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahandas Ghandi.
They have taken the message of nonviolence to heart, and continually press forth the message that verbal violence, or even physical violence, toward the GLBT community must come to an end. Soulforce is also the organization which sent out the Equality Ride across several dozen anti-gay college campuses over the last couple of years. Liberty University was one of the many colleges that was visited. Last year, 24 Equality Ride members were arrested for attempting to discuss GLBT issues with Liberty students.
Yes, a great voice of anti-gay rhetoric has passed. No, I’m not celebrating. There are indeed thousands of people ready to take his place. Even Christ said to love our enemies. As a Christian, my responsibility and my calling is to show Christ’s love, even if I’m appalled by things that Falwell said. The message of Soulforce is very simple, yet it challenges conventional thought. Soulforce Executive Director Jeff Lutes said it best:
“…our adversary was never Jerry Falwell, but rather the misinformation about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people espoused by Falwell and so many others.”
No matter what, he was human. Like all of us, he did things that are wonderful, and things that are deplorable. The message of Christian Community Church of Clarksville is that the grace of God is for everyone. And yes, I mean everyone.
Our prayers go out to everyone who knew him. We pray for God’s peace to comfort them, and I pray that everyone will be given the strength and wisdom to see that the grace of God is for everyone… whether we like them or not.