by Elise Banducci
San Jose Mercury News
San Jose, California
September 27, 1999
The last time the Rev. Mel White, a gay-rights activist, set foot in an area church, he was with his evangelical Christian parents, who believed homosexuality was a sin. On Sunday, with mom and dad looking on proudly, the Santa Cruz native preached about a planned October meeting between gay-rights supporters and the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
"For me, the homecoming was having my parents here to hear me preach with tears in their eyes,” said White, who now lives in Laguna Beach, where he founded Soulforce, an ecumenical group that aims to advance gay rights through the non-violent teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Much of White’s effort is focused on encouraging churches and synagogues to welcome gays and lesbians into their congregations. White’s talk Sunday, the last of three in the Bay Area, was at the Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church in San Jose. The Lutheran church offered space to the talk’s sponsor, the Celebration of Faith, Praise and Worship Center, a San Jose gay Christian church.
White, 59, told the 40 listeners that the only way to change the minds of those who are opposed to homosexuality is to talk to them. While not urging people to go public about being gay before they are ready, he said, "Every day you stay in the closet, you miss the chance to change someone’s heart.”
During his Bay Area visit, White discussed his plan to bring 200 supporters to Lynchburg, Va., on Oct. 23 and 24 to meet with Falwell and 200 of his supporters. The historic meeting at Falwell’s Liberty University was arranged after a series of "open letters” from White to Falwell, which were posted on the Soulforce Web site, < www.soulforce.org > The letters asked the Christian leader and outspoken critic of homosexual practices to soften what White describes as harmful anti-gay preaching and letter-writing campaigns.
White and Falwell have worked together before. For many years White, a former seminary professor and pastor, was a confidant to leaders of the Christian right. He was even a ghost writer for several books, including Falwell’s 1987 autobiography, "Strength for the Journey.”
But in 1993, White, who had been married, announced he was gay. He said his efforts to deny his orientation included counseling, prayer and electric shock. White now lives with his partner of 15 years, Gary Nixon, with whom he co-founded Soulforce. He wrote about his struggle in the 1994 book "Stranger at the Gate: To be Gay and Christian in America.” After Falwell responded to White’s June letter, the two met in August and agreed on the gathering. White says the idea behind the summit is to try to tone down the rhetoric on both sides of the debate.
"This country is racked by violent language that leads to violent actions,” White said in an interview after his sermon. "He (Falwell) has been threatened as much as I have.” Although Falwell has committed to a meeting, he will not sway from his conviction that scripture condemns homosexuality, a Falwell spokesman said in a Sept. 5 New York Times article.
White said Falwell and his supporters will host a dinner for White and fellow activists. The next day, the two groups will attend church together, after which White said parishioners will be asked to lunches and one-on-one talks with the gay-rights supporters.
On Sunday, the Celebration of Faith, Praise and Worship Center presented him with a $4,500 donation toward the October summit. White said some of the money will go toward a $20,000 contribution to a Habitat for Humanity home in Lynchburg that his group will build with Falwell supporters. He said Falwell has committed $20,000 to the project as well.
One of White’s listeners, who asked not to be identified, said she believed his efforts will persuade more churches to accept gays and lesbians like herself. "I think the religious right will decide that gay and lesbian people are Christians just as much as any one of them, and God loves them just as much as he loves his religious leaders,” she said. "Personally, it means that I could possibly go back into a church.”