Falwell and Gays to Meet on Issues Dividing Them
San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, October 22, 1999Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer
They've made careers out of condemning each other.
Tomorrow, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, 200 members of the televangelist's Baptist church and 200 gay and lesbian religious leaders will sit down in a Lynchburg, Va., church together, trying to get beyond two decades of demonizing and demagoguery.
``We need to sit down together and see that none of us have horns,'' Falwell said yesterday. ``We've agreed to look carefully at our wording, to lower the rhetoric, without changing what we believe.''
Inspiring the gathering is a series of highly publicized hate crimes against gays and Christians and the rekindling of a friendship between Falwell and the Rev. Mel White.
White is a former ghostwriter for Falwell, whose close association with the Religious Right leader abruptly ended when White came out of the closet. For the past six years, White has been campaigning for gay rights as a minister with the predominantly gay Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches.
``We can't go into the new millennium hating each other,'' White said yesterday after a meeting with Falwell at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg.
``We demonize Falwell all the time -- saying that he wants to create a theocracy and making him look like the devil. We've got to stop raising money off each other's sickness. People are being killed on all sides.''
Gay rights activists cite last year's murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, and the July 1 double slaying of Gary Matson and Winfield Scott Mowder, a gay couple living in Happy Valley, a rural community outside Redding.
Conservative evangelicals point to the September rampage at a Fort Worth Baptist church, when a gunman shouting anti-Baptist rhetoric killed three adults and four teenagers.
Falwell said the spate of violence convinced him that gay leaders and Christian fundamentalists could not continue business as usual.
Not all factions are willing to stop screaming at one another. Police in Virginia have issued permits for eight groups that want to protest the gathering.
The invited guests will be meeting in the church in groups of 10, five from each side. Reporters and television cameras will be kept outside the church during the actual meetings. ``We don't want people to put on an act,'' Falwell said.
White's delegation, called ``Soulforce'' and coming from 30 states, plans to contribute $20,000 to Habitat for Humanity in Lynchburg, give 1,000 cans and packages of food to local food banks and pick up trash along Lynchburg streets. The delegation will also worship with Falwell's flock Sunday.
Among the 200 people selected by White is a seven-member Bay Area delegation, including gay and lesbian Christians from Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic congregations.
Christian de la Huerta, the San Francisco author of the book ``Coming Out Spirituality,'' is one of ``the Lynchburg Seven.''
``I'm hoping we can move beyond labels like `sinners' and `abomination' and `Christian fanatics' and discover that underneath the apparent differences we all share a common humanity,'' he said.
Another participant, Kara Speltz, is a lesbian, a certified pastoral minister with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland and an active member of the Newman Hall/Holy Spirit Parish in Berkeley.
``We make nasty remarks about Jerry Falwell just like he makes nasty remarks about us. One of the principles of nonviolence is to recognize the truth in your opponent.''
ENDING THE `HATE SPEECH'Not all of the Lynchburg seven are gay or lesbian. The Rev. Doug Donley, pastor of Dolores Street Baptist Church in San Francisco, is heterosexual. His 35-member church has been kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention for its nonjudgmental policy toward homosexuals.
Donley is traveling to Lynchburg with a gay member of his flock, Dave Chandler, a sales consultant with Oracle Corp.
``We are going to speak to our Baptist brother (Falwell) and call for an end to the hate speech,'' said Donley. ``It's much easier to demonize an issue than a person. We need to spread the message that God loves all people--even Baptist people.''
In yesterday's interview with The Chronicle, Falwell conceded that he has gotten carried away with his rhetoric about gay people.
At the same time, Falwell stressed that he still thinks homosexuality is a sin, as is adultery, and that gays and lesbians can overcome their sexual problems through Christian counseling.
``We can't compromise that fact,'' he said, ``but we can do it without being condescending.''
Wayne Friday, a gay rights activist and San Francisco police commissioner, commended Falwell for his recent remarks against anti-gay violence and for holding this weekend's forum at his church. In a letter to Falwell, he also urged the Baptist leader to take another look at his theology.
`` `Love the sinner, hate the sin,' is a statement which validates and
encourages violence,'' Friday said. ``These are words of hate, not love.''
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