Sharone Belt last visited the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg 20 years ago, when her father's Riverdale Baptist Church sent its youth choir for a guest appearance. Belt was a teenager then, and her conservative Christian upbringing had convinced her that being homosexual was "following the devil's path."
Tomorrow, the Annandale resident will return to Falwell's church. But this time, the 33-year-old lesbian will be part of what organizers are calling a historic event: a meeting between Falwell and 200 other evangelical Christians and 200 gay men and lesbians led by the Rev. Mel White, a gay rights advocate who was once Falwell's ghostwriter.
Both Falwell and White are billing the 90-minute "Anti-Violence Forum," in which participants will discuss violence directed against both gay people and Christians, as a breakthrough in the long-running hostility between evangelical Christians and gay rights advocates.
"Through the years, evangelicals, Jerry Falwell included, have been too strident in their condemnations of the [homosexual] lifestyle to the point that we were not communicating adequate love to the gays and lesbians themselves," Falwell said.
He still believes that "homosexuals practice deviancy" and that their "lifestyle is a perverted one," he added. But he has "agreed to not use terms like 'perverts' and 'deviants' when referring to them as individuals" in his fund-raising literature.
Belt, an office services specialist at Virginia's Department of Rehabilitation, is hopeful. "If I can get across to one person in Jerry Falwell's church that we can agree to disagree on this issue and yet treat each other with respect and God's love," she said, "then I will have done my job."
The unusual dialogue is also seen by some as a political move by Falwell to burnish his image by distancing himself from the religious right's sometimes harsh rhetoric against gays. The 66-year-old preacher, whose newspaper earlier issued a "Parents Alert" calling Tinky Winky, of TV's "Teletubbies," a gay symbol, is already taking heat from fellow evangelicals for setting up the meeting. A few right-wing pastors plan to picket his church tomorrow.
The meeting, said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is "an absolute win-win situation" for Falwell. "He can tell supporters, 'I've just presented the gospel to sinners,' and for the [wider] public, it helps him look open-minded."
White, who helped Falwell write his autobiography, said the evangelical minister "is simply a victim of misinformation. . . . My goal is not to demean him, ridicule him or call him the village idiot, but to help him understand the truth as I know it and as he knows it."
White, founder of Soulforce Inc., which seeks to break down anti-gay prejudice by applying the principles of nonviolence, declared his homosexual orientation six years ago. By holding the meeting, he said, "we hope to send a signal out to all of Jerry's fundamentalist friends that you should . . . follow Jerry's example."
Falwell, whose fund-raising appeals have railed against "perverted homosexuals" who "absolutely hate everything that you and I and most decent, God-fearing citizens stand for," said in an interview that he now believes his rhetoric sometimes went too far.
"We believe it's the role of the church to not only cease practicing any strident rhetoric but to encourage the 70 million evangelicals in America to take a very aggressive stand on this issue of vitriolic verbiage," he said.
A recent fund-raising letter put out by Falwell called "radical homosexuals" first on the list of "some of the most destructive elements in our society." He said the attack referred to "Act Up, Oral Majority and Queer Nation," groups he does not believe are representative of all gays.
"The meeting this weekend," he said, "is between persons in what I would call the biblically oriented Christian Church and the sensible, rational Mel White group, who I think represent the vast majority of gays and lesbians in this country."
But Lynn and other longtime Falwell watchers remain wary. "I don't think this will change any rhetoric in his fund-raising literature," he said.
Falwell's meeting has drawn criticism from the Family Research Council, which shares his evangelical outlook. Its Sept. 8 issue of "CultureFacts" warned against pleas from "homosexual apologists" to "dialogue," and expressed concern about Falwell's decision to "have dinner with 200 homosexual activists."
The idea for the meeting came after White, a former professor at the prestigious Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., posted several "Open Letters" to Falwell on his Soulforce Web site, challenging him to halt "the preposterous things you are saying about homosexuals."
Falwell responded with his own "Open Letter" to White on his Web page. In August, the two men met. White said he and 200 gay people would be coming to Lynchburg to peacefully demonstrate against Falwell, and the preacher proposed a meeting instead.
The meeting, Falwell said, will be closed to the media. Participants will meet at 4 p.m. and have snacks and lemonade while they sit at tables seating 10 and talk. The forum, he said, "will have nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality nor even of special rights for gays and lesbians."
Rather, it will focus on the need to end violence against both gay people and Christians. And it won't, Falwell said, change his views about the sinfulness of homosexuality, because a Christian such as he believes "the Bible is the infallible word of God."
White said his group includes gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people of all religious faiths, most of whom are Christian evangelicals. They will be wearing buttons with a quote from Falwell: "Is it true? Is it loving? Does it need to be said?"
Falwell has also invited the Soulforce group to join his congregation for Sunday worship service.
"Our people have been talked to, and our congregation will put their arms around them," said Falwell, adding that he's not had "one negative comment" from his 22,000-strong parish.
The scheduled meeting has stirred up Lynchburg, a city of 60,000 residents. Police Lt. Wayne Cyrus said four groups, including one led by the Rev. Fred Phelps, a prominent anti-gay Baptist, have been given permits for demonstrations at Falwell's church.
"I call them right-wing nuts," Falwell said. "They hate people, not just gays and lesbians. But they hate me because of what I'm doing this weekend."
The fourth permit was issued to Oral Majority of Miami Beach, a gay rights group whose leader has attacked White as a "sell-out" for meeting Falwell.
Lynchburg's First Christian Church-Disciples of Christ, one of the city's oldest mainline churches, has offered its sanctuary as a meeting place for the Soulforce delegation, said its pastor, the Rev. Roger Zimmerman.
For years, "there has been no relationship" between Lynchburg's mainline churches and Falwell's ministry, he said, adding that tomorrow's meeting is "a hopeful sign that there can be more interaction."
Why does he think Falwell agreed to the meeting? Zimmerman thought for a moment and replied, "Well, maybe the Holy Spirit is at work in him."