Associated Press, October 25, 1999
By KIMBERLY LAMKE
and Kellie Young
LYNCHBURG, VA (AP) — Saundra Farmer-Wiley and Kerrie Young might never have crossed paths but for antagonism between conservative Christians and gays. Young, a 22-year-old student, has little in common with Farmer-Wiley, a 57-year-old office manager from Maui, Hawaii. Young is white, has no children and is heterosexual. Farmer-Wiley is black, has three children and is gay.
Yet for one weekend, the two found common ground at the church of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, where the Moral Majority founder on Sunday brought what he said was message of God’ s love to 200 gay Christians.
Falwell’s sermon was the culmination of a weekend forum designed to reduce violence against gays and Christians. It was led by Falwell and gay minister Mel White, an author from California who ghostwrote Falwell’s autobiography before coming out.
Young, who attends Falwell’s Liberty University here, admitted she was initially against the meeting but later volunteered to attend so she could move past her prejudices.
"I was being proud and selfish," she said. "I wasn’t showing the love we as Christians are supposed to have for all people. I was focused on these extreme examples of the homosexual lifestyle I’d seen in the past and that was holding me back."
For Farmer-Wiley, the forum was a chance to be seen as something more than a stereotype in the eyes of the 4,000 worshippers Sunday.
"This was my time to put my perspective in front of their eyes, … time for them to see me as a person, not just some lesbian,"she said. "You can’t change a person from one meeting, but this a first step at building a bridge to understanding, rather than a wall."
"I’m glad I met Kerrie and I’m glad we got to talk. I believe it is the men and women of her generation who will stop the hate and believe we are not a threat to them."
The unprecedented meeting surprised many because Falwell for years has condemned homosexuality.
Earlier this month, gay activists hissed, booed and screamed as Falwell lectured via satellite to about 60 people in a San Francisco park, urging them to give up homosexuality.
The 66-year-old Falwell was also ridiculed earlier this year when his newspaper cited evidence that the creators of the "Teletubbies" show intended Tinky Winky to be a gay role model.
As he had all weekend, Falwell stressed he will not change his belief that homosexuality is a sin, but added: "That has nothing to do with the love factor involved. We are to be lovers of all men and women."
Falwell was careful not to offend his visitors during his sermon, preaching from Proverbs 13, which offers advice on successful living in the eyes of God. He spoke on the importance of working hard, living with integrity and not focusing on material things.
Falwell also talked at length about the importance of parents loving their children unconditionally. He noted that he is often asked by reporters and gay rights activists what he would do if one of his sons was gay.
"I’d tell him ‘I love you just as much … I’m going to pray for you and do everything I can to bring you out of this lifestyle’," he said.
Dozens of angry anti-homosexual protesters demonstrated outside Falwell’s Baptist church, holding explicit signs and screaming at gay supporters as they entered the church.
Among those protesting the gathering was the Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan., whose congregation taunted gays at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was killed in Wyoming.
"For him to invite these fags here and into his church is an abomination," Phelps said outside the church Sunday.
"Now, Jerry Falwell is just as much a sinner as Mel White and both will burn in hell," he said.
White, who brought 200 gays and lesbians from 30 states to participate in the weekend’ s activities, said it was "a shame" that protesters like Phelps brought hostility to a place a worship.
"What we have here is a great moment for our country, gays and Falwell worshipping together," White said. "It’s a small start, but it’s a start."
Copyright 1999 Associated Press. All rights reserved.