San Jose Mercury News Article: "Gay Reverend Preaches Acceptance, Rights Group Plans to Meet With Falwell"

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.”

New York Times Article: "Falwell and Allies to Meet Gay-Rights Supporters"

New York Times, September 5, 1999
By GUSTAV NIEBUHR

If all goes as agreed, the Rev. Mel White, an outspoken supporter of gay rights, will take 200 people to Lynchburg, Va., next month, to meet with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, an outspoken critic of homosexual activity, and 200 people he has invited, to talk about the issue dividing them.

Such an encounter will certainly be unusual, perhaps even a first in the long, contentious debate over gay rights. "I believe we’re going," White said, "and we’re going in love and peace."

The idea for the gathering, he said in a telephone interview, is to try to take the harshness out of the debate.

Mark DeMoss, a spokesman for Falwell, said the conservative Baptist minister was "committed" to the gathering, having agreed to it in August when he met with White at the latter’s request. The event is set for Oct. 23, at Liberty University, where Falwell is chancellor, and "could be anything from a forum to a meal of some kind," DeMoss said.

DeMoss added, however, that Falwell would not compromise on his conviction that the Bible condemns homosexual activity.

"I think one of the themes is going to be, while we’re going to disagree about homosexuality and what the Bible says about homosexuality, violence going in either direction is wrong and we ought to condemn it," DeMoss said.

That this event is even planned owes something to White’s unusual resume, which includes a professional acquaintance with Falwell.

For many years, White, as a seminary professor, television and film producer and book author, worked closely with leading religious conservatives, ghost-writing several books, including Falwell’s autobiography, "Strength for the Journey" (Simon and Schuster, 1987).

But six years ago, White, who had been married, announced that he was gay, and that he had come to terms with it after years of inner struggle, including efforts to change through counseling, prayer and electric shock. He described the process in his autobiography, "Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America" (Simon and Schuster, 1994).

More recently he has been a chairman of Soulforce Inc., an ecumenical group that tries to apply Gandhi’s and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s principles of nonviolence to advance gay rights. "We believe that the gay community hasn’t discovered nonviolence in its powerful, historic sense," he said.

White and Falwell met on Aug. 17, two months after White began writing open letters to Falwell, posted on Soulforce’s Internet site, www.Soulforce.org, complaining about language in fund-raising letters by Falwell’s organizations. White cited several lines, among them one from a 1996 fund-raising letter that said homosexuals "want total political approval and taxpayer money for their perverted political and social programs."

In the August meeting, according to DeMoss, who was present, Falwell told White that he "was willing to take a more careful look" at what went out under his name, but "without compromising what he believes biblically."

Falwell also told White that he had received threats from some gay-rights supporters in the past, causing Falwell concern for his safety, DeMoss said. At that point, he added, both men agreed that any kind of violence on this issue was wrong.

Since agreeing to the gathering, Falwell has come under criticism, particularly from fellow religious conservatives. "He’s taking heat from both sides," DeMoss said.

White said he already had a list of 200 people to take to Lynchburg: gay men, lesbians, and their friends and relatives. He said he is distributing a written pledge to participants, in the style of similar pledges used during the civil-rights movement, asking those going with him to promise to refrain from violent thoughts, words and actions.

Churches in Lynchburg have called to offer hospitality, he said.

"To me, it’s a historic event if it comes off, even if Jerry lectures us," White said. "If Jerry invites us to dinner just to preach to us, he’s invited us to dinner. And he and his 200 people will see we do not have horns."