Conservative evangelist Jerry Falwell today apologized to an audience of 200 gays and lesbians "for not always loving homosexuals" but made clear in later remarks that his new initiative to build a bridge of friendship to the gay community is still in line with his fundamentalist Christian beliefs.
"My ultimate goal, I'll make no bones about it, is to bring them out of the lifestyle and to the Lord," Falwell told reporters following his afternoon meeting with a group led by his former ghostwriter turn gay activist, the Rev. Mel White.
The founder of the Moral Majority welcomed White's delegation, which included some relatives of gays, and 200 of Falwell's own followers to a school gym here for a heart-to-heart dialogue on their differences--and the need to end violence against gays and Christians.
Ignoring the shouts of about 40 anti-gay Baptists who demonstrated outside, some holding such signs as "Jerry And A Fairy Equal Sin," members of Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church and White's gay rights organization, Soulforce, mingled at tables set up on the basketball court of Lynchburg Christian Academy.
Given his past anti-gay statements, visiting Falwell's church might normally be akin to walking into the lion's den for many gays and their supporters. But today it became an oasis of Christian fellowship.
"We appreciate the Rev. Falwell's hospitality and his seeming change of heart," said Bob Henrikson, of Harrisonburg, who with his wife, Shirley, was a Soulforce delegate to the "Anti-Violence Forum." The couple's son is gay, he said, and they "want to contribute to the end of hate and violence. We're not here to argue, we're here to reach some kind of understanding."
"I hope the world will see that the folks at Thomas Road Baptist Church are open-minded, even though they don't agree with the stand the other side takes," said Kim Graham, athletic director at Falwell's Liberty University.
Beige curtains gave the gym the appearance of a formal banquet room. Tables were covered in yellow linen and decorated with artificial autumn leaves. Soulforce put small, white porcelain angels at each place setting. Pictures of those killed for their beliefs or lifestyle graced the low platform from which White and Falwell spoke.
In one of the meeting's high points, both men were given a standing ovation after Falwell described the uniqueness of the get-together.
"Four hundred people who disagree met for 90 minutes without any shouting," the 66-year-old preacher said, according to an account by his spokesman Marc DeMoss. "The building didn't collapse. They discovered it was okay and even legal to meet and meet again . . . and that two men named Falwell and White were dumb enough to do it first.
At the news conference, both men, who remained friends even after White declared his homosexuality six years ago, said they hope to build on today's session and perhaps organize similar gatherings.
Falwell acknowledged he is taking a risk, given that his fund-raising literature has railed against "radical homosexuals" who want to "take over America. . . . I'm getting a lot of heat, lots of letters, lots of e-mail . . . from my friends, my supporters who are saying, 'Hold on man. What are you doing?' "
The meeting was aimed at demonstrating the Christian love and tolerance that both men say America badly needs. But contrary to earlier plans, no snacks or lemonade were served.
Falwell, reprimanded by some evangelicals who believe the Bible prohibits Christians from sharing a meal with "sexually immoral" people, decided not to serve any food, only small bottles of Poland Spring water.
During the meeting, according to DeMoss, White also apologized for hateful speech directed at Falwell and other Christians who say homosexuality is a choice, and therefore sinful.
"You have changed not your view of homosexuality, but of homosexuals," DeMoss quoted White as saying. "When the gay community tries to demonize Jerry Falwell, I'm not going to let them get away with it." He gave preacher a framed cartoon showing Falwell seated next to a "Mr. T. Winky," a joking reference to the alert Falwell's ministry put out this year saying that Tinky Winky, a character on TV's "Teletubbies," is gay.
Ron Godwin, Falwell's executive associate, said he was "quite proud of Dr. Falwell for once again doing the counterintuitive, unexpected thing, and once again exercising greatly needed leadership." Falwell, he said, is "reminding his constituency--Protestant Christians--that we need to get back to Christianity 101, which is demonstrating love for those with whom we have differences."
But the Rev. Edward Nelson of Citizens Against Moral Deterioration was among the protesters who argued that the Bible "tells me homosexuality is wrong. It's a perverse practice."
Emphasizing the importance of the Lynchburg gathering, Falwell said earlier, "This is the South. This is not New York City. This is not just novel, it's historic."
CAPTION: The Rev. Mel White, right, speaks after a meeting between gay rights activists and the Rev. Jerry Falwell, left.