News & Advance Article: "Gay Activists Prepare for Meeting with Falwell"

Gay Activists Prepare for Meeting with Falwell
The News & Advance, Lynchburg, Virginia, October 23, 1999

Rev. Mel White trains Soulforce delegates
Photo by Doug Koontz

A black Civil Rights leader who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. dubbed the Rev. Mel White’s group the "Lynchburg 200" Friday night, comparing the struggle by homosexuals today to that of blacks in the 1960s.

Rodney Powell said blacks and homosexuals have been forced into moments like this because of "bigotry from the misguided application of Christian dogma."

Spiritual leadership is required to overcome that bigotry, he said.

Dr. Rodney Powell
Soulforce delgate

"I believe that what is happening here is incredible," Powell said. But the meeting scheduled today between the Rev. Jerry Falwell and White, each flanked by 200 supporters, is just the beginning, he said. A sustained, massive social protest, guided by love, is required to end the violence and discrimination that homosexuals face in this country, he said.

Powell, who never dared reveal his homosexuality during the Civil Rights Movement, declared, "We were all in the closet. We aren’t ever going back there again." Powell’s was one of many voices heard during a three-hour Soulforce training and memorial service at the First Christian Church. Both Pastor Roger Zimmerman and Mayor Pete Warren, a member of the church, received standing ovations from the group, which was clearly overwhelmed by the warm welcome they received in the Hill City.

Pastor Roger Zimmerman
First Christian Church, Lynchburg

"I do think the weekend is going to be a great weekend for the City of Lynchburg and we’re glad you’re here," Warren said.

The mayor said he saw the interviews of Falwell and White on "Good Morning America" Friday and was elated all day. White echoed Warren’s sentiments, saying that Falwell’s apology for using hate-filled language to generalize about all gays was miraculous. White said Falwell deserved credit for meeting with them and noted that Falwell was the first major southern, Baptist minister to integrate his church. "He wants to be the first in reconciling this community with that community and we’re here to see that it happens," White said. "Jerry Falwell is serious about loving us."

Pete Warren, Lynchburg mayor

White said not to expect overnight transformation, however. "This is grace a Web page at a time … this is grace a sermon at a time," he said. The evening’s program included testimonials from some of the 200 members of White’s delegation, who came from more than 30 states after White asked for volunteers via his Soulforce Web site.

Soulforce means non-violence, White said, and its goals are drawn from the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Soulforce delegate Mary Lou Wallner
tells of daughter’s death as husband
Bob (right) and Rev. White listen

The most moving testimony came from Mary Lou Wallner, who said that as an Evangelical Christian, she is still struggling with what she thinks of homosexuality. Her daughter, Anna, wrote her a letter from college 11 years ago, to tell her she was a lesbian. Wallner said she wrote her daughter back to tell her she loved her, but would "never accept that in you."

Six months later, she told her daughter she could come home if she ever got her act together. For seven years she didn’t hear from her. Finally, she wrote her a letter asking to talk. Anna replied that she wanted nothing more to do with her and on Feb. 28, 1997, Anna hung herself. "If I can steer one person away from living the pain I live, then maybe Anna’s death will have some meaning," she said. "I’ve had to come to terms with who I am and how I treated my own flesh and blood."

Brian Randall,
Liberty graduate,
Soulforce delegate

There wasn’t a dry eye in the sanctuary as White hugged Wellner and her husband Bob and asked God to "take away the guilt. Let it be gone forever."

Two homosexual Liberty University graduates also stood, one choking back tears as he talked about his bittersweet return to Lynchburg.

"God loves us and God is proud of us," he said.

Another delegate, C.J. Taylor of Austin, Texas, said she was making her debut as an activist. Her former husband, Ken Martin, now a gay minister in Austin, stood by her side. She described how she, Martin and his partner, and her current husband worship together, are grandparents together and are good friends.

CJ Taylor
Soulforce delegate

"You help me live my faith in ways I never dreamt of before," she told the largely homosexual delegation. "You have changed the way I worship God."

The evening closed with a candlelight vigil and memorial service for the 20 gay men and transgendered individuals who have been killed for their sexual orientation in the last year.

Poster-size photos of the victims were carried into the sanctuary and held by various members of the delegation as their names and manner of death were read. Several were bludgeoned to death, others stabbed, shot and strangled. One was beheaded.

The ceremony also included tributes to those killed because of their race, nationality and ethnicity and their religious beliefs. Victims of domestic violence, genocide, ethnic wars and indiscriminate anger, hatred and violence were also remembered.

Rev. Ken Martin
MCC Minister,
Soulforce delegate

The Rev. Ken Martin of Austin ended the memorial by saying that they have only one enemy – untruth. Soulforce training will continue this morning before the delegation splits into three groups to perform community service activities throughout the city, including trash pickup, presentation of food to area food banks and ground-breaking for a Habitat for Humanity House. The group will meet with Falwell and his followers at 4 p.m. at Thomas Road Baptist Church. All activities are closed to the public.

White warned his delegation that they will meet protesters throughout the day, but instructed them to ignore the protesters. Four groups have permits to protest the summit.

[Note: Except for the top photograph, these pictures did not appear in the newspaper article.]

1999 Copyright The News & Advance, Lynchburg, Virginia

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