My first face-to-face experience with Soulforce was back in 1999, when members of the organization met with the fundamentalist Rev. Jerry Falwell and some of his followers. I covered the story as a reporter for Baltimore City Paper — one might call this the start of a love story. More importantly, it is, I believe, a terrific introduction to Soulforce, behind the scenes and in the media spotlight: Here is an excerpt from My Dinner with Jerry.
After years of estrangement, during which Soulforce co-founder the Rev. Mel White says he attempted to contact Falwell repeatedly but got no response, the two began communicating again earlier this year. White pressed Falwell to scale back his rhetoric on homosexuality. Falwell refused to budge— his congregation and constituency expected to hear gays vilified from his pulpit, and focusing on the “homosexual agenda” and its call for “special rights” (such as anti-discrimination laws and the right to marry) made for successful fund-raising campaigns.This past August, however, Falwell changed his mind, or at least changed his answer. He had largely disappeared from the media radar, except for embarrassments—when one of his publications “outed” Teletubby Tinky Winky as gay, or when Falwell was quoted as identifying the Antichrist as Jewish. He needed some good press.
At the same time, it’s likely that Falwell softened because White had done the same. After determining that rallies, marches, and staged protests (like the hunger strikes he had used in a futile campaign to stop Robertson from targeting gays) had accomplished little, White began to study the passive resistance Gandhi used to fight for the poor in India and South Africa and the Gandhi-inspired nonviolence of Martin Luther King’s civil-rights activism. Gandhi called his tactics satyagraha, which roughly translates into “soul force.” White and Nixon adopted the name for their organization, and White changed tactics with Falwell, confronting his old friend with the words White says sent queers the message that God hates them and sent others the message that violence against queers was OK. In August, Falwell agreed to meet with White and his delegation.
White says it doesn’t matter why Falwell agreed to the meeting: “Soulforce teaches us not to question our opponent’s motivations. We go by their words and actions. We take on suffering, and try to prevent our opponent from suffering. We confront their untruth with truth, and if they do not accept truth, we move to nonviolent direct action.”
And so, on this Saturday night, the delegates will show up at Thomas Road [Falwell’s Baptist Church] for the big event, the Anti-Violence Forum, in their Sunday best, bearing gifts, including donations for Lynchburg’s Habitat for Humanity and donations to a local food bank. (“Why are we bringing gifts of food and housing?” White asks. “Because if we can get over this homosexual issue, we can get about the business of God.”) They will meet members of Falwell’s church and engage them one-on-one. They will hear about fundamentalist Christians’ lives as they break bread, and tell them about gay and lesbian lives. Queers and fundamentalists who disagree on the sinfulness of homosexuality will—they hope—unite to affirm that God loves everyone.
More reminiscing later… right now, go make a donation to the worthy cause that is Soulforce.
By the way, in case you didn’t know, Soulforce’s Mel White is the dad half of the spirited father-and-son Amazing Team from this past season. Most cool, huh? And recently, he tried dining on alligator for the first time. When I say he has courage, it’s a simple statement of fact. Same for all the Soulforcers.