Against All Odds: A Reflection on Soulforce at Lynchburg

We all know that Bible verse that has become almost a cliché: “with God all things are possible.” Many of us repeat it as a kind of hollow article of faith – or perhaps hope, only – without truly believing it. We’re ready to accept something less. That’s our human nature.

Most of us have a passing acquaintance with the mythic outlines of Old Testament Jonah being swallowed by the great fish – even people outside the Judeo-Christian tradition have heard the tale in some form. What outsiders don’t usually know, and what many of us post-Sunday school insiders have generally forgotten, is why Jonah was swallowed by the fish.

Jonah was sent by God to preach the word to Nineveh, a famously wicked city of the Biblical middle East. Jonah’s reaction was the same one we might have if God sent us to Las Vegas to preach the evils of gambling, to convert the high rollers to using their money for social welfare rather than a thrill at the roulette wheel.

Jonah in effect said, “No way, God. Those people are never going to change. It would be a waste of time and energy – not to mention foolhardy and dangerous – for me to go among them to tell your truth, and expect them not only to believe me, but to turn from their error.”

Instead of going to Nineveh, obeying God’s call, Jonah booked passage on a ship to Tarshish, exactly the opposite direction from Nineveh. En route, a great storm arose, the ship foundered, Jonah was thrown overboard by a crew which thought him bad luck, and along came the fish…

Two hundred people of faith (mostly Christians, but with a number of Jews, Buddhists and agnostics in the mix) felt called to Lynchburg this fall, the headquarters of the Jerry Falwell Ministries, home of the Southern Baptist preacher who has been one of the leading sources of anti-LGBT rhetoric for the past generation. Lynchburg is the center of a multi-million dollar conservative religious empire, the cradle of their own brand of “truth” for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people who follow Rev. Falwell’s television programming on his Family Network, who read his publications, and who send their dollars every year not just to keep it alive but expand its reach and influence. It’s their cause, and they are true believers.

The 200 were adherents of Soulforce, the non-violent movement for spiritual acceptance of LGBT people formed by Rev. Mel White, who once worked for Rev. Falwell and other leaders of evangelical, politically conservative Christianity. White ghost wrote Falwell’s (first) autobiography. To the Soulforce adherents, Lynchburg was their Nineveh.

The calling of the Soulforce 200 was to bring the truth of their lives as deeply spiritual LGBT people and their allies to the attention of the religious right in a most personal way – by sitting down together, breaking bread together, telling their stories, listening to and learning the stories of their counterparts from “the other side.” The ground had already been prepared by White, who has maintained a prickly friendship with Falwell over the years since White came out of the closet and left (was expelled from?) his employment with conservative Christianity.

Many in the LGBT community believed, like Jonah, that the trip was a fool’s errand, that Lynchburg – Falwell, and all his flock – would not change, could not change, notwithstanding that cliché Bible verse about all things being possible with God. Many believed Rev. Falwell would manipulate and exploit his guests, use them to aggrandize his own positions and leave them spiritually stunned, beaten, broken and more abused than ever.

I was one of the Soulforce 200, and while there is not room to describe the entire weekend to you in detail (more than 48 hours of getting to know each other through intensive training, praying, sharing, preparing, planning, compromising, and active engagement), I can report that the results were far more positive than I thought they might be. Yes, I too was Jonah, more enthusiastically traveling to Nineveh, perhaps, but without much more expectation of success.

The good news: With little to gain (and a great deal to lose) in terms of financial support, faith of his own supporters, stature among other leaders of the religious right, Jerry Falwell stepped up to face the pitch that Mel White threw, and hit a solid triple. No, not a home run. The ending of this story remains uncertain. And unlike a standard baseball diamond, in this setting the distance to home plate is far greater than the distance already covered from the batter’s box to third base.

1. Rev. Falwell apologized for past offenses to the LGBT community.

“I’m sorry,” he said. Yes, he used those very words, not only in speaking to the Soulforce 200, but in media conferences before more than 140 officially accredited international news agencies who converged on Lynchburg to cover this historic event. And in preaching from the pulpit of his Thomas Road Baptist Church (a congregation reported to claim some 25,000 members) on the Sunday morning following the summit dialog. In worship that was televised to millions by cable, lesbian and gay visitors were introduced, asked to stand, and appeared prominently in camera shots throughout the hour-long program.

2. Rev. Falwell acknowledged that he and his colleagues in the religious right have failed to communicate a loving outreach to LGBT people in the way that the gospel predicates, and vowed on his own part to use his best efforts to change that perception.

Considering the fact that at least three organizations which are at least nominally Falwell allies had protesters in the Lynchburg streets outside Soulforce Central (First Christian Church on Lynchburg’s elegant Rivermont Avenue), across from the summit venue at Lynchburg Christian Academy, and around Thomas Road Baptist Church itself, condemning Rev. Falwell in the same vicious and hateful terms they usually use only for “dykes and fags,” the steely-haired preacher was forthright and courageous.

Rev. Falwell could and did write off Fred Phelps and his Wichita family – and W.N. Otwell (whose email handle is a mildly amusing “wnotwell”) of Mt. Enterprise, Texas – as un-Christian fringe elements only a whisker away from lunacy. It will be a lot harder to face, and explain words and actions, to erstwhile Presidential candidate Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council, Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition (himself a failed Presidential hopeful), James Dobson of Focus on the Family, and D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries, all of whom condemned Falwell’s plans to meet with Soulforce.

Jerry admitted that the rhetoric of the religious right – including himself and his followers – has gotten “out of hand,” that it has emphasized hatefulness and condemnation far out of proportion to the love and invitation they wish to portray, and that it has to, and will, change.

3. Rev. Falwell counseled all parents everywhere — regardless of how they feel about homosexuality — NEVER under any circumstances to reject their LGBT children, but to love and embrace them.

As Mel White responded in the media conference that followed the summit dialogue, “If Jerry Falwell never says anything more for the rest of his career, if he offers sincere followthrough on this position, his statement will save lives.” White noted for the media that LGBT young people are reported by the National Institutes of Health to attempt suicide at a rate seven times higher than non-LGBTs. That is the result, White said, of condemnation, alienation and rejection by parents who have been counseled in the past that homosexuality is the evil within, an enemy toward whom all methods of attack and eradication are justified.

Does that sound like an all-around love fest? Don’t be misled. There was plenty of reason for the Jonahs in the Soulforce contingent to feel justified in walking away, fleeing to the edge of the city and sitting by the side of the road as he did, complaining bitterly to God that things had not developed as expected. The not-so-good news:

1. Rev. Falwell has not changed his views about homosexuality (the behavior, as distinct from the people who engage in it). He remains convinced that it is sinful, against God’s law, and a cause for God (if not Falwell himself) to judge LGBT people harshly. He adamantly states that he will never change this position.

Rev. Falwell has built an empire – a megachurch, a media network, a constellation of helping ministries, and an increasingly respected private Christian university (Liberty) on the consistency of his rigid views on sin and salvation. The people who follow Falwell, and provide the finances for his enterprises, have been conditioned for a quarter century by Falwell himself to consider homosexuality one of the most heinous of sins.

Even if he were inclined to reverse himself 180 degrees (I’m sure he is not, and will not be for a significant time to come), it would be economic suicide for him to do so. But motivation is less important (and Soulforce teaches not to question an adversary’s motivation, only visible results and behavior) than a factor LGBT people know intimately from the experience of our own lives:

We do not come to terms with our own sexuality overnight, or accept easily a new and loving relationship with God in contradiction of our conditioning. It would be grossly unfair as well as unrealistic to expect that Rev. Falwell might do so.

2. The dialog itself, the face-to-face engagement between people of faith, was billed by Falwell not as a summit on homosexuality, but on prevention of violence against people on both sides of the issue, the Matthew Shepards (yes, Rev. Falwell alluded directly to Matt and other victims of anti-LGBT violence) and the church youths shot by an intruder at Ft. Worth’s Wedgwood Baptist church.

This appeared to me to be a “spin” that hoped to defuse some of the criticism Rev. Falwell was taking for having been cajoled, pressured, or shamed into participation in the dialog. Instead, he could claim moral leadership and a high Christian purpose in working toward a decrease in hate speech and its acting out with guns, knives and fists.

The point was to bring Rev. Falwell and his people to the table, bring them to a forum in which they could meet LGBT people of faith and their spiritual allies, and perhaps get to know them as ordinary human beings rather than demons with horns and tails and pointy teeth. Nearly all of us have experienced the positive change that often occurs in other people’s perceptions, once they actually know a real LGBT person.

3. Rev. Falwell brought to the microphone Michael Johnston, a “recovered” homosexual who has been installed as director of Falwell’s own “ex-gay” outreach, and Johnston’s statement spiraled quickly downward into a rant that grew more and more demeaning and offensive toward the 200 who were nominally his guests.

When called on this breach of etiquette (and prior understanding) by Rev. White and Rev. Jimmy Creech (a member of the Soulforce board of directors and one of the 200 participants) – labeling it “an act of spiritual violence,” Creech coined a new watchword of the movement – Rev. Falwell distanced himself from it, claiming Johnston was not an invited speaker, and that he (Falwell) did not anticipate that the Soulforce 200 would find Johnston’s presence and position offensive.

(But many Soulforce people believe that Johnston, an employee of Falwell, could not, would not have “crashed” the meeting unbidden, and point out that Falwell himself asked Johnston to give a statement once he was seated at the head table. My own suspicion is that Johnston was given the task of saying all the things that Falwell had just promised he himself would not say.)

Rev. Falwell did promise to monitor the public speech and writing of his lieutenants in future, and has already made significant changes in his own website ( He pointed out that hate speech flows both ways, and that he has received extensive threats and disruptions from LGBT activists. He stated, however, that he has been wrong to characterize the entire LGBT community by these “five percent,” and White, for his part, apologized to Falwell on behalf of the community.

4. Throughout the weekend, Rev. Falwell hedged on, backpedaled from, and disavowed other previously “agreed” settings, terms and conditions of the so-called summit. And most galling to me, he consistently referred to the Soulforce 200 as “activists,” rather than people of faith on a par with the 200 hosts.

Originally, the meeting was to be a sit-down dinner pairing 200 of his congregation and college constituents with the Soulforce 200. Rev. Falwell was persuaded by advice from other extreme rightists that something in 1 Corinthians prohibits eating with sinners. So food was taken off the table, almost literally, and only bottled water was served.

(I couldn’t find the cautionary verse, though Paul’s epistle has a lot to say about eating and drinking, and the offering and receiving of hospitality – including the Lord’s Supper. It even says [10:27], “If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience.” Jesus himself was condemned by religious leaders of his day for eating with sinners.)

The Soulforce people were more interested in successful dialog than in filling their stomachs – it was an easy compromise to accept. Paul also says, “Food will not bring us close to God” [8:8].

A planned media event at which Soulforce would help break ground for a new Habitat for Humanity home in Lynchburg (and donate $22,000 which the Soulforce 200 had collected to finance construction) never took place in public, nor did the Soulforce donation of more than $1,000 to the Lynchburg Food Bank. These events were planned especially to show Falwell’s people, and the general citizenry of Lynchburg – many of whom seemed either oblivious to or mildly embarrassed by Falwell’s high profile in their city – that LGBT people share spiritual impulses and commitment to assist the disadvantaged.

A projected street cleanup project was vetoed by police, fearing that it might lead to potentially dangerous confrontations between Soulforce people and anti-LGBT demonstrators. More to the point, perhaps, is that Lynchburg is an extraordinarily clean city, and there was scarcely a scrap of litter or trash out of place in the area that was the responsibility of the host church.

Police were a constant presence at Soulforce Central – more than a dozen on the premises 24 hours a day during the weekend – and they were unfailingly polite and often congenial and responsive to our thanks and conversation, though a few seemed to be gritting their teeth under the weight of a duty they might not find entirely welcome.

The weekend, in short, was the first step on a long journey, an itinerary which embraces much more than Rev. Falwell. He was cordially informed that he would be watched carefully, and if he broke his promises, Soulforce would be back. In the meantime, the focus has moved on to Grand Island, Nebraska, where the organization will attempt its first “prevention.” That is where Rev. Jimmy Creech faces his second Methodist Church trial November 17-18 on charges of vio-lating denominational discipline by continuing to bless LGBT holy unions.

A Soulforce contingent will try to stop the trial itself from going forward, through sit-ins, human barriers across entrances, or other possible actions. They consider the very act of trying a pastor, for ministering to all people equally, an affront to God and itself an act of spiritual assault on the LGBT community. Soulforce participants say they are prepared to be arrested and jailed, if necessary.

What would Jonah do? What does God call you to do?