Sharing a meal is a powerful Christian symbol of comity and hospitality. The Eucharist itself is derived from the Last Supper. But when Jerry Falwell, the Lynchburg, Va.-based evangelist, hosted 200 mostly Christian gay men and lesbians and their supporters last weekend, the only fare on the table was bottled water.
Few of the guests complained, however--a sign of the huge appetite both sides had for the success of the unusual meeting.
"It was supposed to be a full, sit-down dinner. I was a little disappointed, but it wasn't a deal breaker," said Julie Burke, of Hagerstown, Md., a lesbian who was part of the group organized by the Rev. Mel White, a gay activist and Falwell's former ghostwriter. "Jerry Falwell has done something unprecedented. . . . He said words this weekend I never thought would come out of his mouth."
What most gay men and lesbians at the "Anti-Violence Forum" found unprecedented was the fundamentalist preacher's willingness to meet them publicly, apologize for not always showing Christian love to homosexuals and promise to tone down his anti-gay rhetoric.
Yes, the gay delegates also heard the onetime Moral Majority leader declare homosexuality sinful, vow never to agree to legalize same-sex marriages and state that his ultimate goal is to see them give up their "lifestyle" and return to Christ. But for now, Falwell--who was ridiculed over his newspaper's contention that Tinky Winky of "Teletubbies" is a gay symbol--has himself become a symbol to gay people of how to defuse the often-hostile breach between homosexuals and Christian fundamentalists.
"I don't think the [meeting] will get Jerry Falwell to change his beliefs overnight," said Burke, 33, a social worker. "But I think this is a wonderful beginning. . . . Until this whole event, I would have guessed there would be world peace before peace with us and parts of the religious right."
It was, overall, a friendly two days: the Saturday forum with Falwell and 200 members of his Thomas Road Baptist Church and a service together Sunday. Lots of Tinky Winky jokes and live television interviews with Falwell sitting beside White, who wrote the preacher's autobiography and now runs Soulforce Inc., a gay rights organization.
After Sunday's worship service, a woman from the congregation approached a table of Soulforce members at a local Pizza Hut. "I just wanted you all to know," she said, "that we were very happy to have you there today."
Soulforce delegate Sharone Belt, of Annandale, said, "We all kind of looked at her in pleased astonishment."
Just as the gay participants didn't make a big deal about the lack of food, Falwell didn't insist when gay participants objected to having a member of his congregation use the worship service to tell how he set aside his homosexuality by becoming a born-again Christian. The man preached at an earlier service.
The chief concern now, meeting organizers say, is where Falwell's initiative will go. Given the wide disagreement on the morality of homosexuality, what happens next?
White, who also apologized for hateful language used by homosexuals to attack anti-gay Christians, said he and Falwell have agreed to further discussions. And White's group has set up "monitors" of Falwell's publications to see whether he keeps his promise to tone down his anti-homosexual remarks.
Richard Cizik, spokesman for the National Association of Evangelicals, said reaction among Christian evangelicals is mixed. "Some are very supportive and think Falwell has done the right thing," he said. "Others are suspicious that these kinds of efforts aren't productive in the long run."
Cizik believes many pastors will follow Falwell's lead "and be very careful about language they use in public." But there are are limits to rapprochement. "What a lot of leaders in the gay community want is for [evangelicals] to stop preaching that homosexuality is a sin, and that's a compromise we won't make."
Robert Knight, of the Family Research Council, predicted that Falwell's example may encourage others on the religious right to follow suit. "That's fine," he said, "as long as they also reiterate Rev. Falwell's belief that homosexuality remains a sin" and that the church can't compromise on that point.
The conservative council, among others, had persuaded Falwell to forgo food. They reminded him of I Corinthians 5:11, where Apostle Paul warns against associating "with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral. . . . With such a man do not even eat."
Paul's words, explained Knight, are "a special warning against wolves in sheep's clothing, people in the church who are working to change the church's teachings."