October 21-22, 1999.
A Peace Activist Is Born.
The first thing that appeared on television when I finally got to my room at the Days Inn in Lynchburg Virginia was the Rev. Jerry Falwell and his Old Time Gospel Hour. Here was the face of the man I felt was responsible for death in the gay community. Here was a man I reviled.Saturday, October 23, 1999.
Our job was to confront Jerry Falwell. To tell him our stories. To let him see our faces and to know us. But Rev. Mel White, the man who brought us here, told us that our GOAL our OWN personal, spiritual renewal.
I have to confess that I entered this March to Lynchburg with fear and anger in my heart. Few faces on this planet could cause my stomach to turn in disgust like Rev. Falwell's. Shall I be perfectly candid? I hated him.
But knowing that hate is the opposite of what King and Gandhi and Jesus preached -- the opposite of what I needed to feel if I was going to be an effective witness --when I got to Soul Force Central at First Christian Church I felt completely and utterly unworthy.
Martin Luther King, when he faced the bitter hatred in the south -- faces of men who had physically murdered black men and women and who were now spitting on the freedom walkers, cursing them, blasting them with water cannons and putting them in jail -- told his followers that the greatest sin they could commit was to deny the possibility of redemption for his opponents.
King said there was no room for "violence of the heart, tongue or fist."
As the 200 Soul Force volunteers began arriving I found I could barely talk to them. So I found a room on the third floor where there was a woman sitting there folding tracts. I sat and joined her, happy to have some kind of busy work to take my mind off my unkind thoughts.
Then I saw it. In the corner. A piano.
After we finished the stacks of paper I wondered over to the piano and just began playing. Alone in the room I played through every song I ever knew.
It was an old upright that reminded me of my mother's piano. I played furiously, letting the loudness punch me in the chest, trying to feel my mom and dad's loving presence and reminding myself that I was entering into a highly controversial project that would set myself up for criticism from all sides.
Already the voices were loud. From the hardcore right came the words that Falwell was "getting in bed with fags who deserved to die." From the left we were told that we were "legitimizing a hatemonger by giving him a public forum." As if Jerry needed us to get a public forum.
In fact as we drove up to the church, there were police on guard and whole slew of posters and signs: GOD HATES FAGS. AIDS IS THE CURE FOR FAGS. JERRY'S FAGS. All in loud day glow colors held by angry hateful people letting us know we were going to burn in hell and that we were beyond redemption.
I just figured if both sides hated us, we must be doing something right. But even more than that, I believed that I was doing the right thing. I wanted Rev. Falwell to see my face, to hear my voice and to know me. I needed to believe that, just as in my musical THE LAST SESSION, as Buddy learns to get over his caricature of gay people by meeting Gideon, that Jerry would get over his seeming hatred of us by knowing us.
Mel White, whose long friendship with Jerry was challenged when Mel came out as gay, separated from his wife and coupled with his love, Gary, kept reassuring us. He said, "Look, when I worked for Jerry we were assaulted by gay radicals who sent hiv-tainted blood and urine to us in the mail, who assaulted our car. These are the only gay people Jerry has known! I'm telling you that I know Jerry. He is an honest and loving person. We must give him a chance."
But Mel said we must also not back down from presenting Jerry with his own hateful fundraising letters, with hours and hours of videotapes of Jerry's sermons. Our purpose was to confront in respect and love. Our purpose was to enrich our own souls by believing that Jerry was capable of redemption. We had no choice. To do anything less, Mel said quoting Dr. King, was violence. Violence that would destroy our own souls.
Then a miracle happened. Friday morning on Good Morning America Diane Sawyer confronted Jerry with words that were on his website at that very moment. Jerry, whose evangelical empire is so vast it's almost immeasurable, looked at the words and...
He apologized. To us. To the world. He repented of his sin against us.
That night, Friday night in the high arching sanctuary at First Christian Church, the night before our meeting with Rev. Jerry, I was still unsettled. The service was wonderfully informal. Gospel music was being sung. People were telling their stories. And then they said they were going to have a memorial service for those who died because of who they were.
Now I have to confess to the reader that I wasn't completely connecting yet. I wasn't sure my heart was pure enough. I did not want to be manipulated with music and sob stories. I was resisting. But I know why. It's because too often these faces and names are used to simply make political points. "These people died so now we need this legislation..." etc. In other words, manipulating emotions to make political points. I did not want to believe that this is what we were doing.
One by one people began carrying large photos on posters of the faces of the dead bringing these posters and placing them in our pews so they could sit among us.
Matthew Shepard, Billy Jack Gaither. I bowed my head and tried to find my center, still resisting.
And then I looked up. Coming down the aisle was a face I knew. A face I loved.
Bill Clayton. Dead at 16 from suicide after a gay bashing. Bill Clayton whose face I stumbled into on the internet three years ago. Whose face I returned to every day for a solid week before writing his mother. Bill Clayton whose story was first posted on my site. And just as I saw his face coming toward us the person carrying his poster turned and put Bill's face right into our pew.
And I completely fell apart. Reader, I didn't just cry. I wept bitter tears. For 10 minutes at least. Literally, rivers of tears as wide as my cheeks, free-flowing like from a wide-open faucet running down my face; my body wracking itself with huge heaving sobs. I thought about Bill's mom Gabi, Alec his father, Noel his brother.
Maybe it was God reminding me why I was there. Maybe it was Bill himself there in the room reminding me that I was doing the right thing, that *WE* was doing the right thing.
I bowed my head and for the first time in a long time, prayed. I thanked God for giving me the opportunity to confront my fears, my hatred, my doubts and my revulsion. I thanked God for continuing to give me the opportunity to be here with the prospect of peacefully, prayerfully, lovingly facing a man I have loathed for a very long time.
I felt Bill telling me to be gentle. To be loving. To be real.
I could barely stand after the service, my legs were shaking so. My eyes were red and sore. I was depleted. But when we went back to the hotel room I slept with the beautiful, innocent face of Bill Clayton lingering in my mind long after the lights were put out.
We entered the gym of Thomas Road Baptist Church School to a room full of round tables with Jerry's people sitting around them in every other seat so that we could fill in among them. We had just driven through the protestors on the street. I have to say the hate language posters were of a much higher quality printing than the usual crayon scrawl so I took that as a symbol of respect for us, like dressing up for church!
We were all wearing Sunday morning clothes and Hawaiian leis made of ti leaves which we would give to our Thomas Road "partner" sitting at the table. We also brought little ceramic angel Christmas tree ornaments and, most importantly, booklets with all of our faces, names and stories.
I spied a bright eyed female college student at a table near the back who reminded me of Cheri Oteri on Saturday Night Live. I was so nervous about this exercise in humanity that I can't even remember what we said at first. But suddenly I remembered the lei and I asked her if I could give it to her.
"Oh yes!" she said. "I was wanting one!"
So I lifted the green lei and put it over her shoulders and gave her a little kiss on the cheek. Then we looked into each other's eyes and started talking. Intensely looking into each other's eyes as if waiting for the other to blink. I asked her to tell me about herself. Student. Majoring in Music Ministry. I told her I used to be a Gospel singer and went to a small Baptist College.
At some point she told me her oldest brother was gay.
"He was my best friend growing up," she said, her eyes finally floating down to stare at her hands. "He was the one who led me to the Lord when I was 11," she explained as if to make sure I understood what a good person he was. Unfortunately, her story was of a conservative Christian family torn apart and wounded by the presence/distance of a gay child.
"I love my brother but the Bible does say homosexuality is a sin," she assured me while looking deeply into my eyes again. I had to stifle a laugh. It was about the third time she had mentioned it. It strikes me funny when people feel the need to constantly remind you what a sinner you are.
I reached over to get a bottle of water from the bowl set up in the middle of table when I realized the tables didn't look like they were ready for a dinner and I was hungry. (It turns out some of the people on the other side of our divide felt it would be unbiblical to eat dinner with "sinners" -- meaning us. And rather than cause a fuss our side quietly said it was okay. Eating a meal wasn't the goal. Contact and communication; those were the goals. But still, being diabetic I needed food.)
So I sat there with my stomach grumbling talking to this girl and suddenly, just like last night, I began weeping again. But this time quietly and sorrowfully. There was just so much pain in her eyes. She even reached over and apologized as if it was her fault. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you cry."
"No," I said. "I've been crying all weekend. It's just that you cannot imagine how often I hear this story." And I thought about the young man I know who almost shot himself because of his family's rejection. (He joined the Air Force instead.)
Jerry Falwell then got up and spoke. He openly apologized to us for language we found objectionable. He said he realized that "love the sinner, hate the sin" was a cliche and that he was guilty of seeming to hate the sinner. During the speech he reminded us many times that "homosexuality is a sin" which, of course, had me laughing inappropriately.
(I might be the only person in the world who laughs when I hear someone say this. Not because I don't think they're serious but it's almost like a compulsion. Does Jerry think even for a second we don't know he thinks it's a sin? If two minutes go by and he doesn't say it, does he think we think he's changed his mind? LOL.)
Mel White then spoke briefly but preferred to walk into the audience and let some of the Soul Force people tell their personal stories. The story that stabbed me in the heart most profoundly was from a woman who described herself as a conservative Christian who believes homosexuality is a sin.
She said her daughter had come out to her as a lesbian and that in one terrible moment she had told her daughter, "After you get fixed you can come home again."
After that the daughter refused to have anything to do with the mother. The mother said, "I should have picked up my purse and my keys and drove 550 miles to make her talk to me but I didn't."
A year later her daughter was found dead hanging in her own closet, a suicide.
The room kinda got very quiet at that because I think one of the most overlooked and critical issues Christian families face is "What am I supposed to do when my child tells me he or she is gay?"
I can tell you what some parents do. Just go down to the Greyhound Bus station in Los Angeles or cruise up and down the streets where the hustlers -- good Christian kids who got thrown out of their homes -- hang out. Check the morgues for their dead bodies. Mel cited a statistic that more than half the gay kids who kill themselves come from Christian homes.
And that's when Jerry Falwell said something that totally blew a lot of my friends' minds:
"I was asked once what I would do if my son came to me and told me he was gay," he said. "I would tell him that I love him, that I believe it's a sin... but I would say, 'I love you. This is your family. This is your bedroom. It is now and forever your home and I will always be your father and your best friend.'"
I burst into tears again (of course). Conservative Christian people LISTEN to Jerry Falwell. They won't listen to me. But they will listen to Jerry. Some of them honestly believe that throwing the kid out of the house is the correct Christian response! Mel correctly said, "This one statement will save lives."
The girl I sat next to asked me how my parents treat Jimmy and me. I told them they love us, play card games with us, go to dinner with us and probably like him better than they like me." She laughed. I cried again. We prayed together for her brother and her family at my request.
We all watched a big press conference together but none of it was really registering with me. I had one goal: To get to know this person sitting with me and to let her see my true face. My true tear-stained face.
Then it was all over. Rev. Jerry came back into the room where he shook every person's hand. I shook his hand and had my picture taken with him. And then we left.
So what did we accomplish? Did we change anyone's mind about homosexuality? No. Did they? No. But I did learn something about myself. I learned that I loved those Baptists sitting there around those empty tables. But more specifically:
1. The world saw Jerry Falwell invite 200 openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people into his church.
2. We presented him with names and faces of those who were victims of violence and we confronted him on language which we believed contributed to the atmosphere of hate. He apologized for his contribution to untruth and pledged to watch the things coming from his ministry from now on. (We'll help him with that, of course.) And we pledged to watch the hateful language that might come and does come from our side.
3. We told our stories and we allowed ourselves to be seen as the people we are. And we saw them for the people they are.
If they hadn't been Baptists, I'd have compared this to a dance. Two strangers on a dance floor circling each other and staring into each other's eyes. This gathering in Lynchburg was a beginning, an introduction.
Don't get me wrong. It's wasn't easy. There were plenty of chances for us to get insulted and angry -- the missing dinner, the sudden appearance of a strident, militant exgay on Jerry's podium, the disagreements we have over what EXACTLY constitutes hate language and the numerous reminders of how sinful we were, but Mel's strong development of the Soul Force principles of non violent resistance kept us focused on not hitting back when we felt attacked. As a result, I know we made a strong, serious, personal impact.
Next year, I want Jerry to invite me to sing in his church. Afterwards I'll even take him to McDonald's. You see, I'm not afraid to eat with sinners. And who knows, maybe I can even straighten him out on Leviticus.
THE LAST SESSION
1999 GLAAD Media Award Best LA Production
1999 PFLAG L.A. Oscar Wilde Award
1999 LA Drama Critics Circle Award Best Writing
© 1999 by Steve Schalchlin.
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