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.
Coral Ridge Ministries -- a $60 million empire Kennedy built over three decades that includes a theological seminary and a private school -- is at the top of Soulforce's hit list. Deemed by the rights group as a "political organization disguised as a house of religion," Kennedy's ministry has proselytized in fundraising letters, advertisements, and on his shows about "reshaping America" to fit a Christian ideal, meaning a literal interpretation of the Bible and, in turn, the brimstone condemnation of any same-sex lifestyle.
"This is larger than me, but it begins with me," Murphy says above honks and shouts from nearby drivers. Unfazed by the catcalls, he appears eerily calm. "This is the time of year when it's important for the reverend to reach out to people. He doesn't comprehend the suffering he causes, and I'm here to be a physical reminder of that. Soulforce teaches us to not blame the people in the church but to reach into the heart of those who preach hate. Kennedy is the root we wish to pull."
James Kennedy, a man of average height and weight with a game-show host's smile and Spock-like eyebrows, sits behind a massive cherry-wood executive desk, facing a wall covered entirely with earned or honorable degrees, at least 15, from universities and theology schools. Displayed front and center is an award that recognizes him as one of the "1000 Leaders of World Influence." On a wall adjacent is a poster of the U.S. Constitution.
This office, the size of an average one-bedroom apartment, belongs to a man worth millions. The kind of man who wears tailored suits under his minister's velvet robe and occasionally enjoys a vigorous doubles tennis match. But the latter is a rare pleasure, he says. The demands of his weekly television and radio show, The Coral Ridge Hour, beamed to more than 200 countries, consume his time.
This afternoon, he led thousands of local parishioners in a Good Friday service; he grabs a glass of water to soothe his tired vocal cords. He rarely takes appointments, much less ones from the media during Holy Week. His schedule is hectic and is likely to keep him at the church well past 8 p.m. every day.
"No one could have ever told me I'd be here talking about God," he says, sighing. "Oh my, and what a joyous pursuit it is. Goodness, every day seems a true gift."
The ministry was an unexpected career for a boy raised in a rough South Side neighborhood in Chicago who rarely went to church. His source of peace back then, in the mid-'40s, was summer camp, weeks free from his frequently absent glassware-salesman father and abusive, alcoholic mother.
During his teens, Kennedy and his parents relocated to Jacksonville, Florida, where he spent most of his time surfing or water-skiing and dreaming of becoming an astronomer or scientist. As his biography, D. James Kennedy: The Man and His Ministry, reads, he soon put his "masculine good looks, lithe body, and impeccable dress" to better use. By his early 20s, Kennedy was teaching the foxtrot at an Arthur Murray Dance School in Tampa. It was there in 1952 that he met his wife, Anne, portrayed in the 412-page bio as a living incarnation of Grease's Sandy Olson.
But the reverend's dance days were numbered.
Call it divine intervention or a clock radio set at just the right time, but Kennedy's awakening to God came on a Sunday in 1956 with the booming voice of a Philadelphia radio preacher asking rhetorically, "How do you expect to get into heaven?"
"I'd never thought of such a thing," he marvels. "I simply didn't have a good answer."
The following week, the young man went to a bookstore, asked for any religious book available and went home with The Greatest Story Ever Told, a creationist explanation for the universe. That was enough to motivate Kennedy to enroll in seminary.
After his application to be a Congo missionary was rejected for health reasons, Kennedy took the only job offered to him following graduation: a $4800-a-year post helping lead a tiny Coral Ridge congregation that worshiped in a small room at McNab Elementary School on Commercial Boulevard.
For most of the past four decades, Kennedy has lived in the Fort Lauderdale area with his wife. Their only child, Jennifer, is a nurse who married last year. Photographs from his biography were taken in the mid-'70s and '80s but appear as though they're plucked from a Mayberry scrapbook circa 1955. There's Anne and Jennifer in matching dresses in front of the Christmas tree, Kennedy playing a tune on the family grand while wife and daughter look on, smiling.
Kennedy hesitates to talk about what formed his opinions about homosexuality, but it can be said that they aren't based on personal interactions. He says he's never befriended a gay person.
"I believe one was working at the dance studio," he says doubtfully. "But I couldn't tell for sure. They are very good at blending in."
Kennedy's belief that homosexuality is not genetic and is "caused by a series of psychological traumas" at a young age formed years ago, he says. The Bible explicitly condemns the act of same-sex intercourse, and that's reason enough for him. During an interview with New Times, he analogized homosexuality with pedophilia and stealing.
"I once talked to a woman who was up to her eyeballs in lesbianism," he says. "She told me that all the lesbians she'd known were all seduced by men as children. I have in the church numerous ex-homosexuals."
Kennedy is an ardent believer in conversion -- that is, gay-to-straight conversion. He formed Worthy Creations Ministry in 1998, a group devoted to preaching that homosexuality is a conscious choice and can be healed through religious devotion. Worthy Creations made headlines October 18, 2000, when America Online customers feared that their dollars might be going to Westminster Academy, a school founded by Kennedy that teaches his brand of antigay dogma to its approximately 1000 students, most of whom are Coral Ridge congregants' kids. AOL Chairman and CEO Steve Case gave $8 million to Westminster, which educated Case's wife, Jean. The school receives funding from 18 conservative political groups, including the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council.
Another of Coral Ridge's high-profile ministries is the Center for Reclaiming America. It received national attention two years ago for a newspaper ad featuring testimonials by people claiming that spiritual devotion had helped them turn straight. "The Truth in Love" campaign's star was Anne Paulk, wife of John Paulk, who claimed he had turned straight only to be spotted dancing with a man in a popular Washington, D.C., gay club two years ago. The center is a busy place. Just last week on its Website, it posted a warning that the Broward County School Board was going to "meet and sign an agreement with the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) to add homosexual indoctrination to the schools!" and urging people to fax, write, or e-mail their opposition.
"Our best way to get people to believe our glorious truth is to point out that this fellow who said -- I don't remember his name -- but about eight or nine years ago, he said he'd found the gay gene," Kennedy says. "The thing that struck me was that this so-called scientist was gay himself! Of course, the media, which is often complicit with the homosexuals, played this up. It was all a part of gays' effort to gain special rights."
Kennedy is referring to a 1993 National Institute of Health announcement that it might have possibly found a genetic indicator for homosexuality. A research team, led by an openly gay geneticist, discovered that 33 of 40 pairs of gay male brothers had identical DNA "markers." But many in the field dismissed the study because the group was too small. Others called it an oversimplified answer to a highly complex question.
Kennedy scoffs at the characterization of Coral Ridge's work on this and other fronts as political activity. "I'm not a politician. I've never said the words Democrat or Republican ever in my church," he declares. Yet the minister, who founded the D. James Kennedy Center for Christian Statesmanship in Washington, D.C., has long aligned himself and his church with a bevy of right-wing politicians and causes.
In 1994, Kennedy launched a national fundraising campaign to oppose former President Bill Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, condemning that "Honorable and decent men and women" are forced to "shower, share latrines, and bunker with" gays. To support pro-life causes, the reverend has raised millions, characterizing abortion in fundraising letters as "Pull[ing] a baby three-fourths of the way out of its mother's womb, stick[ing] a pair of scissors in the back of its neck, and kill[ing] it." This year, he began a fundraising campaign opposing gay adoption in Florida.
Most recently, Kennedy appealed to his international flock to help pay for Alabama Supreme Court Judge Roy Moore's legal expenses. Moore is in trouble for placing a two-and-a-half-ton tablet of the Ten Commandments on the floor of the court rotunda after hours, telling no one except Kennedy -- who beamed the stunt live to Coral Ridge worshipers. Moore has also been widely criticized by colleagues for a February 15, 2002, ruling that stripped a lesbian of custody rights to her three children. In a 33-page concurrence, Moore, citing the book of Genesis, called homosexuality an "inherent evil."
Such activities have led Murphy and Soulforce members to call Kennedy a hatemonger. "I don't hate anyone," Kennedy says. "Gays have threatened my life. My secretary got a call from a homosexual who said he was going to come in here with a bomb strapped to his body and blow us both to heaven."
The reverend describes protests that have raged outside Coral Ridge in past years, many of which have become loud and at times unruly.
"I've been a little hesitant to even walk outside [during the protest]," he admits. "You know what one of them had? A 'KKKennedy' sign. Now, I'll admit that that hurt me."
The man who carried that sign was Richard Murphy.
Before joining Soulforce, Murphy had difficulty talking about the Rev. Kennedy without feeling violent. And then, someone was violent to him. "Because of my shame, I lived a pretty closeted life," he says. "I was having sex with anonymous men in parks, and one night a guy whacked me in the back of the head with a metal pipe. I woke up bleeding. That was the incident that made me think there could be something wrong with this."
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."
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.
But no encounter was as bizarre and disturbing as one Murphy had with another Coral Ridge worshiper on Easter morning. "This man came out olaf the church with a video camera. He put his hand on my shoulder and said to me, 'Let me tell you a story about a friend of mine who was a cocksucker.' And I just looked at him in total disbelief and told him that I didn't want him to tell me the story. But he kept talking. It was the vilest thing anyone could do on Easter Sunday. I told him to stop repeatedly. All of a sudden, the guy said, 'And you know what happened? The guy died.' It was very, very strange."
Later in the afternoon, Murphy's friends Andy Lant and his partner, Gordie Eggelston, joined him in front of Coral Ridge. Like Murphy, Lant and Eggelston wrestled with their homosexuality and religious identity for most of their twenties. Lant was married for six years; Eggelston, an ex-Air Force pilot, was married for 12 and a half years. While Lant considers himself spiritual, Eggelston, wearing a shirt that says "Jesus," frequently watches The Coral Ridge Hour -- not because he's keeping tabs on the enemy but because he likes it.
"When I moved to this area, I had always wanted to go to service in this church," he says. "When I thought of Fort Lauderdale, I always thought Coral Ridge."
While he was still married, Eggelston went to Bible college in Lima, New York. "Somehow, I was able to tell myself that I wasn't gay in spite of fantasies I had. I wasn't really trying to hide it; I just didn't want to acknowledge it. That's why I wanted to be there with Richard. I want people to see that I love Jesus and I love Coral Ridge and also that I'm not ashamed to be who I am."
While the three men stood together, a Coral Ridge worshiper yelled to them, "Homosexuals will not inherit the kingdom of God! Are you a sinner?"
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Eggelston looked calmly at the man and replied, "Yes." Startled, the man turned to walk back to the church.
"I told him that because we're all sinners," Eggelston says. "I mean, you're not going to change these people's minds, so you might as well try to live in peace with them. I'm sure some people would wonder why I support a church that calls me a deviant. But I'm not going to judge someone by one flaw they have. I want to look at the whole person, and to me, Kennedy is at heart probably a good person."
Eggelston and Lant attended Easter service hand in hand. But Lant left in the middle of Kennedy's sermon. "There just wasn't a lot of sincerity coming from him. I got a weird feeling, like the room was just cold when he talked."
As for Murphy, he left at sundown, alone, a book of prayers under his arm, without having exchanged a single word with the Rev. Kennedy.