On the Front Range of the Culture War: Reflections on the Soulforce Action Against Focus on the Family

We are all participants in same-gender relationships. — Rev. Gil Caldwell, a 72 year-old straight grandfather from Mississippi

Coming into Colorado Springs for Soulforce’s action against Focus on the Family, my quiet cab ride was disturbed by two signs that I had landed in a ‘red’ state.

The first was an impassioned plea on the radio from James Dobson, encouraging Colorado voters to contact Senator Ken Salazar to tell him to end his support of the Democratic filibuster of Bush’s judicial nominees. The second was driving past the New Life Church, a massive shopping center house of worship with a giant neon sign out front proclaiming JESUS. I got that familiar sinking feeling as someone from a flyover state who is constantly trying to defend my heritage to East and West coasters: I guess we are really that bad after all.

The next day dawned with the flanks of the Front Range hidden under cover of snow and clouds. It was a freezing May first, surely not a good sign for turning out numbers to what was billed as a “May Day family picnic” in front of the Focus headquarters. But as the time for the rally approached, clutches of people descended on the scene. Square-state stereotypes fell away as hundreds of Colorado residents, fed up with the self-appointed spokespeople of family values, showed up to the rally to dance, eat, and shiver for freedom.

The usual crowd of lefties was there – Young Democrats, neo- and proto-hippies, anti-war protesters. There was a pride parade contingent of spiky-haired lesbians and leather and glitter gay boys. But then three charter buses pulled up, and church groups started filing out: straight couples with children, grandparents with P-FLAG pins, clergy in collars. They set up card tables with hot chocolate and snacks, and it actually started to look like a church picnic.

At the press conference, I denounced Focus’ “Love Won Out” ex-gay programs on behalf of the Religious Leadership Roundtable and the Task Force. One of the most powerful speakers at the press conference and the rally was Reverend Gil Caldwell, an African American United Methodist pastor who was part of the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi. He stood in front of the crowd and proclaimed, “We are all participants in same-gender relationships.” It was a statement that, if I had made it, would have meant nothing, but coming from a 72-year-old straight grandfather, it meant everything.

The most emotional speech came from Mary Lou and Bob Wallner. Mary Lou, a former fundamentalist Christian, lost her lesbian daughter to suicide in 1997. Next to her pleas for Christians to repent from their deadly homophobia, Focus’ statements in the local papers the next day — that they love gays but the Bible rejects homosexuality — came off as especially coarse.

By the time we started marching around the Focus headquarters, the popular liberal church song, “We Are Marching in the Light of God,” had morphed into, “We Are Freezing in the Light of God.” It was a long hike; Focus has a massive headquarters. As we rounded the final stretch of the march, we looked into windows at their in-house publishing department, a warehouse of books and pamphlets dripping with vitriol.

On Monday morning, 23 year-old Soulforce staffer Jake Reitan and his parents, Randi and Phil Reitan, marched up to the Focus headquarters to deliver a letter to James Dobson. The letter was one of a thousand “Dear Dr. Dobson” letters Soulforce collected which described the pain Dobson’s activities have caused in the lives of families. On Mondays, the Focus headquarters are usually open to the public, but because of the protest they had closed their doors and even covered the sign in the driveway with a tarp. After the Reitans read their letter, this small clan of hot-dish Minnesota Lutherans, right off ‘A Prairie Home Companion,’ deliberately trespassed onto Focus property. They were handcuffed in plastic binders by police, and led off to a waiting prisoner van while about 250 Soulforce protesters sang “Amazing Grace.”

Focus leadership had continually denied requests to meet with Soulforce, claiming schedule conflicts and travel plans. Yet somehow, several of their vice presidents and spokespeople appeared in all the media stories on the event, even though they weren’t technically there. The siege mentality of the religious right was truly apparent as they huddled behind their shuttered doors, issuing useless press statements against this small contingent of peaceful protesters.

And perhaps they were right to dig in: if all it takes is a bunch of liberal grandmas and hippy college students to shut down a multi-million dollar operation for a day, maybe they aren’t as strong as we thought.

As I participated in the activities over the weekend, I kept thinking about Jesus’ words to his disciples, that they must be, “innocent as doves and shrewd as snakes.” It seems Soulforce has put the pieces together for being both prophetic and strategic. But the other thing that struck me is just how vital this work is. As Soulforce founder Mel White spoke at the rally about conducting funeral services for young gay Christians who had taken their lives, it became apparent there is a toxic culture that has grown up around American religion.

Whatever we may do in our various denominations and religions as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and supporting people of faith, we must remember that we are working to save lives.