When Jeff Lutes shared bottled water and conversation with members of Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church during Soulforce’s first action in 1999, he had no idea where it would lead him.
“I thought, ‘what in the world am I doing here in a place called Lynchburg as a gay man?’ but doing justice and standing up for yourself and for your family and for so many gay and lesbian people around the country who for whatever reason can’t stand up for themselves,” Lutes said.
Lutes, a licensed professional counselor in Austin, Texas from Austin, Texas, is now Soulforce’s new executive director, overseeing the day-to-day activities of the organization so founder Mel White can work to expand the visibility of Soulforce.
“Mel’s gifts are in the area of training and public speaking. He’s also a very talented writer who is getting ready to come out this fall with his second book with a working title Religion Gone Bad: A Call to Resist Fundamentalism,” said Lutes.
White will continue to serve as Soulforce’s main spokesperson and be involved in fundraising, and is glad to have Lutes onboard:
“The evil intent of fundamentalist Christianity is to impose their worldview on all Americans, a worldview that would deny rights and dignity to all gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender people. Our new infrastructure will equip us to better equip activists for the critical work of stopping this form of religious violence. Under Jeff’s leadership, we’ll be taking this to the streets like never before,” White said.
Born in Kentucky, Lutes was raised in the Southern Baptist church and says even though he may disagree with the theology now, that tradition is still near and dear to his heart. Lutes said it is that tradition and his background as a counselor that has helped him as a Soulforce activist and will serve him well as its new executive director.
“I understand what it’s like to grow up in the church and I understand the sometimes twisted theology that leads to the assault on us in the churches as well as the courthouses. It’s not just a matter of trying to change it in the churches, but many times when legislators introduce anti-gay measures it’s related to what they’ve been taught in the church.”
Lutes sees the work of Soulforce as complementing that of organizations that work for equal rights for GLBT people in the secular world.
“Our job is to expose the injustice, educate people about it and then build a movement of people around the country – not just gay and lesbian people but our allies who will begin to stand up and speak out and say ‘enough is enough,'” he said.
That movement has materialized in the form of many actions including protests against James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family,” the Southern Baptist Convention. Their latest action, the Equality Ride, involved 32 young adults taking a seven-week bus tour from New York to Los Angeles to confront nineteen religious schools and military academies that ban the enrollment of GLBT students.
But, for Lutes, it all started with that cold water in Lynchburg.
“It was an incredibly empowering experience,” he said. “We say in Soulforce that even if our action doesn’t change the adversary right now, it changes us because anytime you stand up and speak your truth it builds a lot of internal integrity, dignity and strength. I’m really glad I got bitten by the bug and hope to be at it for sometime to come.”
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.