San Francisco Examiner, Oct. 24, 1999

Longtime foes preach tolerance

by Michael Dougan

First things first: Mel White needed food. 

"We're so hungry and so tired," said White, a minister in the predominantly gay and lesbian Metropolitan Community Church, from the parking lot of conservative preacher Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., late Saturday night. 

White and Falwell had just led a meeting between 200 gays, lesbians and their supporters and 200 evangelical Christians - an unprecedented gathering aimed at reducing the rate of homophobic violence in America. 

Next things next: There were people to be thanked. 

"Good night, gentlemen. We really appreciate everything you did for us," said White as a reporter listened in. 

"I was just saying good night to the policemen," he explained over his cell phone. "There were so many of them you wouldn't believe it. We had sharpshooters with rifles." 

But, said White, no problems arose at the meeting, though 40 fundamentalist Christians held protest meetings outside the church. 

Once ensconced in the warm interior of his car - "it's freezing cold here," he said - White waxed ecstatic about the historic convocation. He said Falwell, his once and future friend, had made bold and portentous proclamations to the group. 

"He apologized for his anti-gay rhetoric," said White, who had ghost-written Falwell's autobiography before coming out as gay. In the past six years, White has lived publicly with his romantic partner, Gary Nixon, and founded Soulforce, a nonprofit organization combatting anti-gay violence. Recently renewed contacts between White and Falwell led to Saturday's meeting. 

Falwell, according to White, told the gays he was "sorry I have caricatured you based on 5 percent of your population, and I should know better because 5 percent of our population is just as bad.' " 

Falwell blamed some of the more strident anti-gay literature to emanate from his church on an advertising agency they had hired, said White. 

After the session, Falwell said his "ultimate goal, I'll make no bones about it, is to bring them out of the lifestyle and to the Lord." 

"We have to take him one step at a time," said White. "He has turned against the religious right and all of his colleagues and said, "I'm going to have gay people here at my church.' And for Jerry Fal well, here in the Virginia mountains, that's a huge step." 

White said he and Nixon have been meeting and dining regularly with Falwell and his wife since they arrived in Virginia several days ago. "He's beginning to know us, and there is no other way to change but to know one of us," said White. 

That's what Dave Chandler, a gay parishioner at San Francisco's Dolores Street Baptist Church, said he found on Saturday. 

"My expectations were to build a relationship with one person from Jerry Falwell's side," said Chandler from his room at the Lynchburg Hilton Hotel after the meeting. "I made that connection . . . and I felt very successful in that connection." 

He expressed concern about returning and telling gays in The City about his experience and his religious faith. 

"We want to witness and share the gospel of Christ with the gay community but they have been so burned by people - wounding them with the misuse of the gospel," said Chandler. "They're not going to understand when we say Jerry Falwell made these kinds of gestures. . . . That is a tremendous challenge on our part." 

Falwell's followers were upbeat about the meeting. "It shows that we could come together and we could agree to love each other no matter what our stance is on certain issues," said Wesley Lewis, a 20-year-old graduate of Falwell's Liberty University. "I understand Mel White and his group a lot better." 

The event's protesters were unimpressed. 

"Falwell used to teach the Bible word for word, now he's going off and meeting with these fags and going against everything he's ever taught," said the Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan. Phelps and his followers have attracted nationwide attention for taunting attendees at funerals of gay men killed in violent attacks. 

After Falwell apologized for his rhetorical excesses, said Falwell spokesman Marc DeMoss, White issued a similar apology. 

"You have changed not your view of homosexuality, but of homosexuals," DeMoss quoted White as saying. "When the gay community tries to demonize Jerry Falwell, I'm not going to let them get away with it." 

At the beginning of the meeting, White presented Falwell with a framed cartoon showing him seated next to a "Mr. T. Winky," a tongue-in-cheek reference to the alert Falwell's ministry put out ear lier this year warning that a character on the PBS children's series "Teletubbies" was gay. 

The meeting was held at the gym of a Christian school adjacent to the church. The tables were covered with yellow linen and decorated with ersatz autumn leaves. Soulforce put a small, white porcelain angel at each place setting. Pictures of people killed violently for their beliefs or lifestyle were placed on the low platform from which White and Falwell spoke. 

The Rev. Doug Donley, pastor of the Dolores Street Baptist Church and one of seven Bay Area representatives who attended as part of White's contingent, said he was impressed by the quality of the encounters. 

"We lovingly saw each other as human beings and saw each other as brothers and sisters and started telling the truth for the first time for many of us," he said. "I think we made great inroads on the opportunity to put faces behind the issues." 

He said Falwell's apology to gays and lesbians and promise not to repeat his mistakes was "a risky step for him to take and we will hold him to it." 

Plans to serve the group dinner had to be canceled when some of the evangelicals said the Bible forbade breaking bread in the company of sinners. 

"We decided it was not worth distracting from the purpose of this meeting to hold a debate over whether it was appropriate to serve food or not to serve food," said DeMoss. 

The only grumbling came from participants' stomachs. 

"We just laughed," said Donley. In place of food, he said, "we had liters of water and long lines for the bathrooms." 

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