Hundreds of people converged on Riverside Park in Lynchburg, Va., Oct. 26 for “OUT and ABOUT in Lynchburg,” the first-ever pride festival in Jerry Falwell’s hometown. The following morning 150 people stood in prayerful vigil for four hours outside Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church. Vigilers also stood with signs and banners that read “Stop Spiritual Violence,” “Southern Baptist Teachings are Killing God’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Children,” and several others, including quotes from Gandhi.
Soulforce is a national movement committed to ending spiritual violence perpetuated by religious policies and teachings against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. National and regional groups and individual from across the United States joined together for the weekend events.
Dozens of students from Lynchburg-area high schools and colleges joined residents and Soulforce supporters from as far away as Hawaii to participate in the pride event. Several local high school and college students also joined with Soulforce supporters to participate in the vigils in front of Thomas Road Baptist Church on Sunday morning.
“The purpose of the weekend events was to alert, educate, and begin to mobilize the residents of Lynchburg to stand up and speak out against the toxic rhetoric spoken by Christian fundamentalists like Rev. Jerry Falwell,” said Rev. Mel White, co-founder of Soulforce Inc. “The pride event celebrated who we are and who God created us to be. The vigils called attention to the fact that fundamentalist rhetoric leads to violence and suffering for God’s GLBT Children.”
In a press conference on Saturday, Rev. White said that several gay-friendly groups are taking root in Lynchburg now, including a PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) chapter, a Soulforce local group, and a “safe haven” for gay teen-agers. Also participating in the press conference were Art Scott, an “out and proud” graduate of Falwell’s Liberty University, Faisal Alam, the founder and director of Al-Fatiha, an international organization for GLBTQ Muslims, and Rev. Roger Zimmerman, pastor of First Christian Church, the host church for the Soulforce weekend in Lynchburg.
Rev. Mel White and his life-partner Gary Nixon moved into a home across the street from Thomas Road Baptist Church in September and have been attending morning worship services there every Sunday. Rev. White had ghost-written the autobiographies for Jerry Falwell and other Christian fundamentalist before he reconciled his sexual orientation with his Christian faith
During the weekend, 2,000 pamphlets written by Mel White, titled “What the Bible Says – and Doesn’t Say – About Homosexuality,” were distributed throughout Lynchburg during the pride event, passed out in front of Thomas Road Baptist Church and handed to individuals in a door-to-door campaign earlier in the week.
“It was a truly powerful weekend,” said Diana G. Westbrook, co-chair of the weekend’s events. “We know that the people in Lynchburg, including members of Thomas Road Baptist Church and students at Liberty University, are able to discern the difference between truth and untruth. Rev. Falwell is a prime nationwide source of untruth about homosexuals, and this weekend went a long way toward presenting the truth that God, who created us, loves us just the way we are.”
Activist and ally Laura Montgomery (Rutt) Williams has served as executive director of Equal Partners in Faith, communications and media coordinator for Soulforce, and media, publicity and logistics coordinator for the United Methodist Church trial of Rev. Jimmy Creech, who was defrocked in 1999 for marrying same-sex couples. She is also co-founder of the National Religious Leadership Roundtable for LGBT Equality.