San Francisco Examiner, Oct. 23, 1999
Gays, Falwell meet in search of a truce and understandingby Michael Dougan
San Francisco Police Commissioner Wayne Friday's letter was to be placed in Jerry Falwell's hands Saturday. After thanking the conservative Baptist icon for recent remarks against anti-gay violence, Friday writes: "What happens in Lynchburg this weekend can signal a new day in America."
What is happening is unprecedented: Some 200 fundamentalist Christians are meeting with an equal number of gay men, lesbians and their supporters in search of a civilized conversation. Seven in the latter group are from the Bay Area.
The meeting -- to be held at Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va. -- was the brainchild of gay Christian leader Mel White, a former ghostwriter for Falwell and other evangelical leaders. The pair parted ways when White came out of the closet as a homosexual six years ago, but their friendship has been renewed recently.
The purpose of the meeting, as stated by both sides, is to stem the tide of anti-gay violence symbolized by last year's murder of Mathew Shepard of Wyoming and Winfield Scott and Gary Matson outside Redding in July.
Friday said Falwell -- whose persistent characterization of homosexuality as a Biblical sin has been blamed, at least in part, for that violence -- had spoken out against physical attacks on gays.
In a teleconference address to a San Francisco gathering on Oct. 11, Falwell devoted at least one-third of his speech to a strongly worded condemnation of anti-gay violence, according to Allen White, a San Francisco publicist who was there.
That, in turn, was a response to a call Friday had made during a memorial service for Shepard at The City's Metropolitan Community Church, he said.
"I said he should take the opportunity to come out against anti-gay violence. Somehow the message got to him and he responded to what I said," said Friday, who has debated Falwell on the issue of gay rights.
Next, delegates from Mel White's anti-violence organization, Soul Force, asked Friday to write a letter for White to give Falwell on Saturday.
"You know and I know how evangelical church leaders take emotion-charged positions against gay men and lesbians," Friday writes in the letter. "Love the sinner, hate the sin' is a statement which validates and encourages violence."
Friday said Falwell "has been saying that for so many years it isn't funny, and he doesn't mean it."
Friday said he didn't expect Falwell to take a freshly minted position on gay rights following Saturday's session.
"Things change," Friday said. "Jerry Falwell can change. But I've known him for 25 years, and he has not changed at all. He's still talking about how sinful gays are."
The Rev. Karen Foster, associate pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church in San Francisco, expressed reserved optimism about the Lynchburg meeting.
"I'm certainly hopeful," she said. "We're keeping it in our prayers, and I do think this is a step in the right direction."
Foster noted that the Lynchburg conference would consist of small meetings attended by a handful of representatives from each side. She said her own experience indicated that could be successful.
At a National Council of Churches conference in Oakland several years ago, Foster "participated in round-table discussions where some gay and lesbian folks told their stories to some heterosexual folks who had probably never met gay and lesbian people before, and we found that to be an incredible experience for all of us."
Foster said "the discussions continued in the hallways and outside into the streets because we became so engaged with one another. That's one of the reasons I'm hopeful (about Saturday's meeting in Lynchburg)."
One delegate - Matt Alber, a singer with the choral group Chanticleer - is attending from the St. Francis Lutheran Church in San Francisco, said the Rev. Jim DeLange, its pastor.
He said congregation members had chipped in the money to pay for Alber's trip in the hope that the conference would make a difference.
"We are very, very much in favor of anything that will further the cause of gay and lesbian people being able to participate fully in the lives of the Christian church, whatever its expression," said the minister.
However, noted DeLange, "Rev. Falwell has a propensity for being able to turn any public event to his advantage for his fund-raising efforts. He has huge overhead and a constituency that shares his views, so he has to keep them happy."
Julia Theron, a San Francisco member of Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, said she hoped the meeting would be "an important turning point. . . . We need to try everything."
However, she said, she's not convinced that the meeting will work.
Nor, by any means, is San Francisco supervisor and write-in mayoral candidate Tom Ammiano.
"Truth is stranger than fiction sometimes, but I'm justifiably skeptical (about Falwell) because it seems that everything he does is for publicity, and it's a stunt," he said Friday. "At the same time, if it's worth a shot, it's worth a shot."
Ammiano said he had heard Falwell's satellite address to the San Francisco conference, but remained unmoved by the minister's anti-violence rhetoric.
"It's taken him long enough to do that," he said. "If there's some permission
that he thinks he has once he reaches that point to continue saying gays
need to be saved and gays need to be cured, then he's only taken a half-step,
and he's still putting the wrong message out to kids."
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