Cross Purposes

The Rev. D. James Kennedy teaches that homosexuality is a sin. Richard Murphy loves him anyway.

By the same token, Soulforce is clearly a political organization: Despite its nonviolent approach and ecumenicalism, the group's stated intention is to stop right-wing homophobes like Kennedy. In an age in which AIDS and gay rights are forefront issues, the organization contends that peaceful sit-ins are a much more effective way to make a statement. In other words, Soulforce is the peacenik sibling of anarchist groups such as the 1980s' ACT UP.

"We are trying to engage those we've tried to fight," says Soulforce founder Mel White. "Richard is actually trying to save Kennedy's soul."

White, a 61-year-old minister from Laguna Beach, California, met Kennedy 33 years ago. White was living in Los Angeles and running a successful television and movie-production business with a Christian bent. He got a call from Kennedy and others involved in the fast-growing Coral Ridge ministry to write and shoot Like a Mighty Army, a Christian propaganda film that started Kennedy's Evangelism Explosion, an outreach ministry with headquarters in Malaysia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Brazil, and Great Britain. During the next 20 years, White says he and Kennedy exchanged letters and phone calls and worked on another successful film. White, Kennedy, and the Rev. Billy Graham were close. "When they needed something, they called me. When I needed something, I called them," he says.

But White stopped getting calls from his evangelical amigos when he came out about seven years ago.

"I had tried everything for years to deny or change my sexual preference," he says. "Electric shocks, exorcism. I sliced my wrists open. That was just the end for me. It was either accept that I'm gay or die."

White says the next time he saw Kennedy was at a Reclaiming America conference that White attended as a registered delegate. (White didn't tell organizers he was gay; homosexuals are generally not allowed at Reclaiming America events unless they are trying to become heterosexual.)

"I saw Kennedy in the press room, and he said in a very low voice, 'OK, OK, I'll meet with you, but let's go to the back room.'

"I said 'Jim, we're here to talk about my sincere concern that you don't understand sexuality and homose--' But before I could even get the words out, he was coming at me," remembers White. "He started yelling, 'Repent, repent!' I then yelled back, 'But I have repented.' He was leaning way over me yelling 'Repent!' and pointing his finger at me. He tried to grab my head. I was yelling; he was yelling. By the time I hit the sidewalk, I was just, 'Wow! pretty unproductive.'"

Kennedy at first has trouble recalling White. "Mel White, Mel White," he muses. "Where in the world did you hear that name? About 30 years ago, a film was made about the ministry, and that fellow I think was hired to be a writer. I never saw him again for 25 years."

Kennedy describes the Reclaiming America confrontation with White. "He wanted to talk to me so we, uh, discussed it."

At this point during New Times' interview with Kennedy, he asks this reporter if she is a lesbian and if New Times is a "gay newspaper." A few minutes later, Kennedy abruptly ends the interview, visibly shaken. He then says that despite a phone interview about Soulforce and Murphy the previous day that he does not recall, he assumed the interview would focus only on Coral Ridge and his career.

"Is this what this story is about? Homosexuality? Well, my dear, I have to tell you, I'm very disappointed. I had no idea. I'm a very busy man, and this is Holy Week. I don't have time to talk to anyone this week. I don't have time to think this week!"

Easter Sunday is the last day of Murphy's vigil. A processional of SUVs and minivans creeps into the church's expansive parking lot. Murphy stands with his sign. He nods occasionally as parishioners pour in for a three-hour service.

Always the optimist, Murphy characterizes his quiet protest as a success, even though Kennedy hasn't so much as come on the lawn near where he's stood for the past three days. The Vigil-lante's optimism rides on reaction he's elicited from others.

Apart from the expected catcalls from drivers, a man approached him in tears and told Murphy he'd been raised a Southern Baptist and doubted that God loved him because he is gay. An hour later, an Asian man parked his car a block and a half away and brought his children over to talk to Murphy, leaning over them, telling them that discrimination is wrong. Numerous people offered him something to eat and drink.

Of course, Murphy's encounters weren't all encouraging. A woman stopped her car on the road and handed him an envelope. Read it, she said. Inside, a letter asked him to read the Bible and listed what Murphy and White call the "clobber verses": scriptures that imply Christianity forbids homosexuality. A Coral Ridge worshiper chided him for bringing his "filth" to the church, upset that the parishioner's daughter would have to look at Murphy's sign.

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