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The white steeple of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church looms over Federal Highway, casting a cone-shaped shadow across the church's football-field-sized grounds and onto cars stalled in the evening rush. On this Good Friday, the day Christians observe the Crucifixion of their Lord and Savior, the church's 303-foot-tall unintentional sundial reminds everyone below what time it is.
Richard Murphy looks down at his watch. It's close to 6 p.m.; the small-boned man has been standing on the sidewalk outside the church for more than ten hours. He shifts his weight and props a fluorescent-green sign on his shoulder. Palm fronds stapled to the sign droop in the humidity. He wipes the sweat from under his thin tortoiseshell glasses. Since sunrise, Murphy has been reciting prayers to himself. His black tie, white business shirt, and brown suede shoes give him the look of a nondescript businessman.
But most 9-to-5ers don't go around sputtering Leviticus or launching one-man crusades against one of the nation's most controversial, right-wing television evangelists. Murphy, a devout Christian who knows Scripture like most people know their addresses, has held solo vigils near the finely manicured lawn of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church for three years in a row. Each year, he brings his Bible and all the patience God gave him and tries to get the attention of Dennis James Kennedy, minister to a local flock of 10,000 and nearly a billion worldwide.
Murphy's ideal topic of conversation? Kennedy's insistence that homosexuals are deviant and abnormal, sinners condemned by God and bound for hell. This rhetoric, along with a string of traditionally social-conservative issues, make up the backbone of the Coral Ridge religious credo. And it makes a gay Christian like Murphy very upset.
"This is first a test of my faith. I'm literally standing on my faith to try to unravel the untruths Kennedy preaches," Murphy says. "It's a plea from one Christian to another Christian. Look, anyone can believe whatever they like. But he's a politician in minister's clothing. And that threatens my civil rights."
Murphy collects himself, his tone steadying, and says, as if reciting, "I have no animosity toward Kennedy or the folks at the church. I love them. But I hate their inhospitality, their false witness, and their discrimination."
Since 1998, Murphy has been a small if persistent bug in the minister's ear, particularly through the mail. The activist has marked up Coral Ridge's homophobic literature and fundraising letters and mailed them right back to Kennedy. He's written Kennedy seven letters in four years asking that the two meet and discuss their differences. Kennedy has replied three times (counting an assistant's letter), each time denying the request. Murphy has called the church hundreds of times, he says. "He thinks I can't do this forever," Murphy says. "But my faith is strong. I can."
Kennedy's secretary Mary Anne Bunker, a bouffanted woman with a grandmotherly face, frequently fields those calls. "Richard? Oh, yes. He's a very nice man," she says. "We are all wayward. I hope he comes to see, you know, that if he stops the homosexual lifestyle, he too could walk with the Lord. In his favor, though, he's one of the most persistent people I've ever known."
And perhaps Murphy must be, to take on a conservative Christian ideologue on his own turf: the realm of faith. Times have changed since the Reagan-era heyday of the Moral Majority, when televangelists like Jim Bakker ranted at the pulpit against same-sex sinning. (His ex-wife, Tammy Faye, is now a friend of the gay community and speaks at gay rights events.) Indeed, there may be no more heated and public a battle meshing politics, sex, and culture than the one between homosexuals and ministers such as Kennedy -- or his allies Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, celebrity extremists who initially explained September 11 as a consequence of America's embrace of gay rights.
Closer to home, 2002 marks the 25th anniversary of Anita Bryant's anti-gay-rights campaign, which led to Florida's ban on gay adoption. More alarming to Murphy is Kennedy's association, through events and fundraising, with Take Back Dade, a group that's lobbying to reverse a clause in the Miami-Dade County human-rights ordinance that protects against discrimination based on sexual preference.
"When you start coming into my life like that, influencing laws and telling me and my partner how we can live, then that calls for something," says Murphy. "I'm trying to do something."
Murphy is alone today, but is representing a larger group: Soulforce (www.soulforce.org), a national gay-rights advocacy group that teaches nonviolent protest against homophobic clergy. The ten-year-old organization hosts hundreds of sit-ins around the nation. The group is partly run by Mahatma Gandhi's grandson Arun in Memphis, Tennessee.
Known as the "Vigil-lante" among Soulforce's 15,000 nationwide members, most of whom communicate through e-mail, Murphy conducts training sessions and participates year-round in massive sit-ins during conservative religious gatherings such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Southern Baptist Convention and in front of churches led by notorious antigay preachers. He's even gone to jail a couple of times for the cause. Murphy spends almost all of his free time working for and giving money to Soulforce, which has headquarters in Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Orlando to serve its approximately 700 statewide devotees.