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Falwell commits to weigh words after meeting with homosexuals

LYNCHBURG, Va. (BP)–Baptist pastor and television preacher Jerry Falwell committed to “weigh every word carefully” and to “reach out lovingly” to homosexuals after an unusual meeting of 400 people equally divided between homosexuals and conservative Christians.
He will not refrain from teaching homosexuality is a sin, but he is willing to work with Mel White, a longtime friend and homosexual activist, to come to some agreements that would help reduce the violence against homosexuals, Christians and others, Falwell said Oct. 23.
The unique meeting between two groups on opposite sides of one of America’s most divisive issues occurred on the campus of Thomas Road Baptist Church, where Falwell is pastor. It was scheduled as a result of a meeting White and others had with Falwell in August. White, who was a ghostwriter for Falwell on two books in the 1980s before he announced his homosexuality, and Falwell both invited 200 people to a 90-minute meeting that was closed to reporters.
While the groups met, about 40 people protested in front of the church campus. Most of the protesters were opposed to Falwell’s willingness to meet with homosexuals, but one group was upset with White for meeting with the high-profile opponent of homosexual rights.
The focus of the forum was reducing hateful speech and violence, Falwell and White said in a news conference afterward. The meeting came after a 12-month period in which homosexuals were slain in two highly publicized crimes and evangelical Christians were shot to death at a Littleton, Colo., high school and Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. They did not agree on what is defined as hate speech, White admitted. It is not describing homosexuality as sinful nor telling homosexuals they can be changed through the Lord Jesus, Falwell said.
“That isn’t hate language. That’s love language,” Falwell said at the news conference. “You’ve got to allow us the ability to believe in the power of God, that nothing is too hard for the Lord, without believing when we say that we’re against you.”
Michael Johnston, a former homosexual who now has a Christian ministry, appealed at the news conference for an agreement from homosexuals “that sharing our faith, sharing the Word of God is not hate speech.”
Even “if we disagree on whether homosexuality is sin or not, we can agree that we have the right to share what God has done in our lives,” said Johnston, who said he had been attacked and harassed by homosexual activists. Johnston is a member of a Southern Baptist church in Hampton, Va.
Falwell said he was committed to not being “unnecessarily strident” in fund-raising letters. Falwell ordered some changes made in one of his ministry’s statements after White pointed out the fallacies, White said. “We’ve got to get over the demeaning, dehumanizing kinds of fund-raising letters that shoot out at each other from both sides,” White said. He will send his fund-raising letters to Falwell first from now on, White said. Both Falwell and White said they had apologized and forgiven each other for some of the things they have said in the past. “Today, I believe we got a first step in building a bridge to a community of millions of persons who right now, because of many of us, Jerry Falwell being one of them, believe that we not only hate what they do but we hate them,” Falwell said. In opposing homosexuality, he has erred in failing “to build the same bridge to the gay and lesbian community that I have built to those in every other” community, Falwell said.
The event has “reinforced my commitment to weigh every word carefully, be sure that my condemnation is of sin, not the sinner, and that my position is against wrongdoing, not the wrongdoer,” Falwell said. “At the same time, I don’t want anyone thinking that my friendship will cease if someone doesn’t change. If someone doesn’t, I’m still going to be a friend, as Jesus was of all men.”
White said, “I have been working and working and working to help him understand the difference between preaching his conscience about homosexuality and the things that he says about homosexuals that are really false and inflammatory.”
In the closed-door forum, Falwell said, “I hope you’ll find me in the future showing more love for homosexuals than I have in the past,” ministry spokesman Mark DeMoss told reporters.
White said, DeMoss reported, in the forum, “You have given us a great gift today, and you’re going to pay a terrible price. While Jerry has demonized gays, so too have we and others demonized Jerry Falwell. When the gay community tries to demonize Jerry Falwell with their speech, I’m not going to let them get away with it.”
No date was set for another meeting. White told reporters Falwell and he would “look at each other carefully for a couple of months, and then we’ll get together again.”
A Southern Baptist leader who attended the forum called it a “daring move” on Falwell’s part. Bill Merrell, vice president for convention relations of the SBC’s Executive Committee, said, “I think we will have to wait and see whether there is a long-term benefit of civility that comes from the meeting.”
The meeting “was positive in as much as evangelicals were reminded that God warns but does not taunt, that he accepts persons but does not approve of their sin, and that his love causes him to reach across every divide to redeem human beings,” Merrell said. “It is never appropriate for Christians to speak hatefully of others. Of course, it is always appropriate for us to speak the whole counsel of God upon every topic, including the failure of men.
“It seems to me there is a great need among many in the homosexual community to find the approval of evangelical Christians,” Merrell continued. “I think in a sense that need for approval is really directed at God. While we cannot remove or reduce the standards that Scripture holds out, we certainly can say that all persons are made in the image of God and that they are loved by him and that he woos them and calls them because he yearns to give forgiveness.”
The participants in the forum sat at tables of seven to nine people, with a mixture at each table of those invited by Falwell and White. The participants invited by White were representatives of Soulforce, an interfaith group headed by him and committed to practicing nonviolence in furthering the cause of homosexuals. Most of those invited by Falwell were from the church or the staff and students of Liberty University. After the news conference, Falwell and White returned to the forum location to visit with participants.
Falwell, the chancellor of Liberty University and the founder of the now-defunct Moral Majority, has been known as an independent Baptist but has had some affiliation recently with Southern Baptists. Thomas Road Baptist Church has contributed to the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia, a relatively new state convention, and sent messengers to this year’s meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“We have a lot of fear about Baptists, and that fear is moderated a lot,” White told reporters. “We like the people we met at those tables today. And, you know, as they went out with their tears in their eyes, I think they like us.”
The meeting occurred at a “great cost to both of us,” Falwell said. He was “getting a lot of heat” from “his supporters and friends, saying, ‘Hold on, what in the world are you doing?’ My mail is not nearly as bad as what he gets,” Falwell said of White.
Among the groups protesting in front of the church was one led by Kansas independent Baptist pastor Fred Phelps, who leads demonstrations against homosexuality around the world. One of the less inflammatory signs his group held was a photo of Falwell with the words “Judas Falwell” on it. Phelps’ protest was a family affair, with his wife, two daughters, three sons-in-law and a grandson making up the group.
Another group protesting Falwell’s decision to meet consisted of about 15 men from an east Texas church pastored by W.N. Otwell. The same group demonstrated outside Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., in the months leading to the 1992 presidential election. Bill Clinton, who was elected for the first time that year, is a member of Immanuel.
A homosexual group, the Oral Majority, protested against White’s participation. The group is headed by Bob Kunst, a homosexual activist form Miami Beach, Fla.