By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Frank Owen
Six years ago, Murphy came out of the closet. It was a profound step for him to take: He had been raised in a strict Catholic household by parents who thought being gay was the epitome of abnormality. Desperately wanting to reconcile his religion and sexuality, the 52-year-old sold his business -- a closet store in Coral Gables.
"That's my best party joke," he laughs. "I had to get rid of the shop to focus on myself. I was really confused, very unsure of who I was." Murphy, who has lived all his life in Miami, now attends Metropolitan Community Church in Miami Beach.
Although he went to various conferences around the country focusing on homosexuality and the clergy, the Wyoming murder of gay 21-year-old Matthew Shepard in October 1998 spurred Murphy to greater action.
"I was looking on the Internet for information about Matt," he says. "I was just sobbing deeply. Next thing I know, I'm at Soulforce's homepage."
To become a Soulforce soldier, one doesn't simply sign up. A prospect must follow four indoctrination steps on its Webpage, mostly consisting of Gandhi-esque resistance tips and information about laws governing same-sex matters. The final step requires the recitation of five vows: to seek truth, love all, control passions, limit possessions, and suffer voluntarily.
Murphy took the Web-posted vows. "It was the easiest thing I've ever done in my life," he recalls. "There was a time when I wanted to fight Kennedy. But that's just not who I am anymore."
Since then, Murphy has continually asked Kennedy to form a "blue-ribbon bridge-building panel" between Soulforce members and Coral Ridge worshipers. "The goal was to just sit down and talk to each other, try through that to understand -- and maybe tolerate -- difference."
Months drifted by without a response from Kennedy. So Murphy upped the ante by purchasing a bus-bench ad outside Coral Ridge; running for a year ending last winter, it read, "Love, Do Justice, Show Mercy, Stop Spiritual Violence." There has been an ongoing effort by Soulforce members to adopt and clean the stretch of highway near the church for an afternoon. Murphy says that he's called the reverend several times and that occasionally the two have talked.
According to Murphy, on the day before Easter last year, while he stood again with his sign, Kennedy and his wife asked him to lunch. Over their meal at Fort Lauderdale's Roadhouse Grill, Murphy says, "I explained that I wanted to talk to him about reconciling the antigay preaching he does, and I wanted him to sit down and talk with me about the possibility that it might be harming people."
Believing he'd made progress, Murphy immediately posted an Internet press release describing the lunch and what he perceived as Kennedy's change of heart. Kennedy wrote a letter to Murphy two months later calling the activist a "gossip of the worst kind."
Recalling their discussion differently, Kennedy tells New Times, "I thought Richard had come to me to be saved, to rid himself of the evils of homosexuality.
"A couple of years ago, someone told me that there was a man in front of our church. I went out to see what it was about," he says. "I started talking to him. He was very wary at first, seemed to think I had some kind of ulterior motive, so I invited him inside. I finally asked him if he was a Christian, and he seemed to think he might be. When I questioned him more, I realized his concept of Christianity was inefficient. I explained it a little more to him, and he told me he was gay."
Kennedy remembers that Murphy came back the following day holding a different sign: "Greetings to My New Friends in Christ." Kennedy says he invited him in a second time, giving him something to eat and drink. The reverend confirms that he and his wife had lunch with Murphy -- under the impression Murphy wanted to stop being gay. "Richard's been distorting my statements to him ever since," says Kennedy. "I really don't care to have any further conversations with him."
Laughing at Kennedy's account, Murphy says he'll never meet with the minister alone again. If his 2002 Holy Week vigil had prompted another lunch (which it did not), he had plans to bring Jill Nelson, Miami Shores Grace Metropolitan Community Church minister, and Miami Soulforce member Bob Skaggs as witnesses. Nelson, a lesbian, has participated in Soulforce "direct actions" in Fort Lauderdale and recalls vividly the first time she heard Reclaiming America's national director, Janet Folger, speak two years ago.
Folger, the brain behind the gay-conversion newspaper ads, is a major player among right-wing extremists. Just a few weeks ago, she was invited to a speech President George W. Bush gave at the White House about his opposition to human cloning. Before she joined Coral Ridge Church, she was the legislative director of the Ohio Right to Life Society, where she lobbied for passage of the nation's first partial-birth abortion ban. Folger's office would not return calls for an interview.
"It was truly amazing," says Nelson. "By the time she was done talking to that crowd, she had them believing that gays had a political agenda to squash straight Christians. She used words like 'concentration camp.' We're not dealing with just any people. These people know how to manipulate the political machine."