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The compassion of Jerry Falwell

LYNCHBURG, Va. (BP)–“Jerry Falwell hated gay people.”

“Jerry Falwell blamed abortions on promiscuous women.”

“Jerry Falwell wanted to lock up all the drug addicts in prison.”

In the past week, I have heard more misinformation, deceptive reporting, and downright bias concerning Dr. Jerry Falwell than I could imagine. With a particular glee, these activists disguised as journalists spread salacious rumor. Christopher Hitchens, a Vanity Fair columnist, has taken great pleasure at brutally disparaging Dr. Falwell on every medium possible. He has not been alone.

Yet the Jerry Falwell we on Liberty Mountain knew was far from this poisonous caricature. In fact, the great secret about our beloved chancellor is that he was often a human triage unit. He rescued the injured, the wounded and the broken. Even those with self-inflicted spiritual wounds found a haven of rest. For many thousands, Liberty Mountain is more than just a place to work and worship; it is home.

Many years ago, Dr. Falwell decided that if he was going to take a moral stand, he had to do more than just speak against something; he had to offer solutions. He did not kick the down-trodden; he offered them help. In 1959, he established the Elim Home for Alcoholics, where thousands of men have found deliverance in an eight-week program, free of charge.

Dr. Falwell was steadfastly pro-life, and spoke regularly against promiscuity, yet unwed pregnant mothers find a refuge at the Liberty Godparent Home. They receive free medical care, family planning, vocational classes and comfort, rather than accusation and scorn.

Are you beginning to get the picture?

Liberty Mountain is more than just the home of a megachurch, or the world’s largest evangelical university. It is a place of refuge. Do you remember the show “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer?” Since 1964 it has played yearly on national television. Rudolph, ridiculed by other reindeer, finds an island sanctuary for malfunctioning and unwanted toys.

Well, if you remember the TV show, then you can understand the genius of Dr. Falwell. For many, he offered an Island for Misfit Christians. Ministers tossed aside by their churches found encouragement from Dr. Falwell. He believed they could be restored, and brought back to spiritual health. Jerry Falwell did not bury the wounded; he provided a place to heal. Thousands of marriages were rescued. Drug addicts cleaned up. Dr. Falwell did not just curse the darkness — he lit a candle.

Of course, I cannot speak for others, but I can speak for myself. In Jerry Falwell my family found a pastor, and I found a friend. I was, and I am, a misfit.

I failed as a pastor, because I do not have the gift of compassion. I am a grump.

I am a professor who loathes lazy thinking and clichéd Christianity.

I am an author who despises purposefully vague language. Tell me what you think.

I never learned the fine art of diplomacy. Stand for something.

I have little patience for bureaucracy. Make a decision or get out of the way.

There are very few places on God’s green earth where I fit. Except here.

I always suspected that Dr. Falwell was amused by me. I preached at Thomas Road and the Old Time Gospel Hour on many occasions, and every time he would ask me, “Are you mad about something today?” When I answered “yes I am,” he would smile and say, “Good. Go get ’em.”

I was always intimidated in his presence, but that timidity was usually shattered when he slapped me on my back, or punched me in the stomach. I had to deal with the fact that a 72-year old man regularly beat me up.

Millions of Christians were profoundly impacted by the life and ministry of Jerry Falwell, but for those of us who knew him as our pastor, we all had a special bond. At one time or another, we would have to dive out of the way of his SUV, as he tried to run us over, laughing out his window. He would swerve his car slightly, sending us scurrying.

In reality he never did run any of us over. He was too busy picking us up and welcoming us home. I am a misfit who found a home.

Thankfully, Dr. Falwell was prepared for this eventuality. His son, Jonathan, has been our executive pastor for years. Last Sunday, Pastor Jonathan stood in the pulpit, and preached one of the most powerful messages I have ever heard. He preached with boldness, just days after his father died. He stood in the glare of the television cameras, and had a prophet’s mantle.

He preaches like his father, and has vision like his father. I just hope he doesn’t punch me like his father did. I don’t think my ribs can take it.
Ergun Mehmet Caner ([email protected]) is president of Liberty Theological Seminary, and professor of theology, history and apologetics for Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

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  • Ergun Mehmet Caner