Associated Press, Oct. 24, 1999, 9:02PM

Falwell, gay Christians unite in worship service

Associated Press 

LYNCHBURG, Va. -- The Rev. Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority founder long known for his strong condemnation of homosexuality, on Sunday brought a message of God's love to 200 gay Christians invited into his church. 

Falwell's sermon was the culmination of a weekend forum designed to reduce violence against gays and Christians. It was led by Falwell, 66, and gay minister Mel White, an author from California who ghost-wrote Falwell's autobiography before revealing his homosexuality. 

"His sermon was amazing," said David Chandler, 36, a gay man from San Francisco and one of the more than 4,000 worshippers. "He sent a message to parents to love their children no matter what. I admire and respect Falwell for taking that stand." 

The unprecedented meeting surprised many because Falwell for years condemned homosexuality. 

Earlier this month, gay activists hissed, booed and screamed as Falwell lectured by satellite to about 60 people in a San Francisco park, urging them to give up homosexuality. Falwell was also ridiculed earlier this year when his newspaper cited evidence that the creators of the Teletubbies children's show intended Tinky Winky to be a gay role model. 

As he had all weekend, Falwell stressed he will not change his belief that homosexuality is a sin, but added: "That has nothing to do with the love factor involved. We are to be lovers of all men and women." 

Falwell was careful not to offend his visitors during his sermon, preaching from Proverbs 13, which offers advice on successful living in the eyes of God. 

He spoke on the importance of working hard, living with integrity and not focusing on material things. 

Falwell also talked at length about the importance of parents loving their children unconditionally. He noted that he is often asked by reporters and gay-rights activists what he would do if one of his sons was gay. 

"I'd tell him, `I love you just as much ... I'm going to pray for you and do everything I can to bring you out of this lifestyle,' " he said. 

Dozens of angry anti-homosexual protesters demonstrated outside Falwell's Baptist church, holding explicit signs and screaming at gay supporters as they entered the church. 

Among those protesting the gathering was the Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan., whose congregation also taunted gays at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was killed in Wyoming. 

Phelps said it was "an abomination" for Falwell to have invited the gays into his church. "Now Falwell is just as much a sinner as Mel White, and both will burn in hell," Phelps said. 

At Saturday's meeting, both sides apologized for harsh words said over the years and discussed ways to reduce violence against homosexuals. 

White and Falwell agreed ahead of time to disagree on whether gays can be Christians and focus on ways to deter violence against homosexuals and Christians. 

White brought 200 gays and lesbians from 30 states to participate in the weekend's activities. They were joined by 200 evangelical Christians who support Falwell's stance. 

Sunday's church service ended with the entire congregation standing together and singing the Baptist hymn Only Trust Him. Falwell interrupted the song to reiterate to worshippers that what he or anyone else thought of them did not matter, but what was important is their relationship with God. 

White said it was "a shame" that protesters like Phelps brought hostility to a place a worship. 

"What we have here is a great moment for our country, gays and Falwell worshipping together," White said. "It's a small start, but it's a start."