Sunday, May 20, 2007

I'm a Jerry's Kid - A Tribute

I'm a Jerry's Kid. No, not the kind you see on the Labor Day Telethon. I'm a graduate of Liberty University, and thus an educational offspring of Jerry Falwell and his vision. I often refer to Jerry simply as "Jerry," or "my old buddy Jerry." Lots of LU alumni speak of him that way. It seems we all had those powerful personal encounters with him that made him seem like our old friend.

I will never forget one night in college when I was out for a walk with my girlfriend. We were holding hands and leaning in quite close to one another. Suddenly a vehicle came out of nowhere heading straight for us with the high beams on. A voice boomed from the vehicle, "Hey boy! You let go of her hand!" I was terrified. I eased around the side of the car to see who it was, and low and behold, it was Jerry. By now, he was belting out his big Santa Clause belly laugh. "Did I scare you?" he said. Darn right he did.

Or the time I saw him coming out of the beer aisle at the grocery store late one night. I was shocked! He was holding a six pack of... Coca Cola. He held it high to show me. He must have known I was an LU student and could imagine my first thought.

Or the time he nearly had a head on collision with me coming out of a parking lot (his fault... speeding). He gave an apologetic shrug and a squeemish smile.

Perhaps that's why I usually speak kindly of Jerry. Jerry was real.

Certainly, I have found much wrong with many a Christian televangelist in the past. The exploitation of the church for TV fame and fortune is deeply disturbing. And while I strongly disagreed with Jerry's fundamental premise that politics will save the world, I have a hard time criticizing him. Why? Because Jerry didn't do what he did so he could be rich or famous or important. He really did believe that a Moral Majority could save the world, that Christians needed to speak out against immoral behavior, and that the country should legislate Christian values back into the culture. He really believed it... down to his core.

The Rosies of the world call him a hatemonger, but he didn't hate anyone. I often heard him say that he "hated the sin but loved the sinner." I cringed every time he used this phrase, not because I didn't think he meant it. Oh, he did! But because I knew that so many would never believe him.

The fact is, he received a lot more hate than he was accused of giving. One man in a church I attended sued Jerry Falwell in an effort to strip the university of its federal student loan program. The suit claimed that Jerry's political activity made receiving the federal money a violation of church and state separation. But I heard the way this gentleman spoke of Jerry, and it was quite vicious. Somehow, I doubt Jerry ever said a cross word about this man, either publically or privately.

I once wrote a letter to the editor of the college newspaper saying Jerry's chapel messages were too political. I questioned why every verse in the Bible seemed to talk about the war in Iraq one year, and the next year, every verse identified Bill Clinton as the anti-Christ. I questioned why he quoted more from Time and Newsweek than he did from the Bible. I wrote with biting seriousness, because, after all, I was right!

But it was different when I actually read my words in print. I never thought it would be published. Didn't Jerry edit these things? I remember walking around campus that day getting cold looks from a few Jerry loyalists and a secret high five from one of my professors. I had sparred with the Big Guy! I was feeling pretty good about myself until next week's chapel. Jerry began by addressed my letter. Okay. Not directly. But it sure felt like he was talking straight to me. He spent five minutes on the importance of chapel. He quoted letters from alumni about how chapel changed their lives and made them true Champions for Christ. I slumped in my seat, my heart pounding. I still believed I was right and that chapel was more a political rally than a Bible study, but I made Jerry mad, and that made me sad inside. He was really trying to make a difference in the world for the good while people like me stood by and threw rocks.

My respect for Jerry started much earlier, however. I grew up in the center of flaming fundamentalism. Fundamentalism in my childhood was a separatist movement. C ontact with the outside world was forbidden. Fundamentalists could only associate with other fundamentalists. We called this "separation. " But furthermore, neither could fundamentalists associate with fundamentalists who had associations outside of fundamentalism. This we called "double separation."

I remember when Jerry got kicked out of the fundamentalist group we were a part of. His crime: he allowed the Presbyterian preacher D. James Kennedy to speak at Thomas Road. It wasn't so bad. Kennedy, after all, was a fundamentalist too, and having Kennedy speak wasn't going to change Falwell's spots, but the fundamentalists cried foul and declared the beginnings of a slippery slope that would erode the core values of fundamentalism.

Jerry didn't give in. He turned fundamentalism outward and embraced the growing evangelical movement, arguing that fundamentalists need not withdraw from the world; instead they should engage the world alongside those who shared their values. When my church leaders started calling Jerry Falwell and Liberty University "liberal," I decided, "I'm going there!"

My only regret about Jerry was that he didn't take this inclusiveness a bit further. He called fundamentalists to have a softer side - to unite with others for a greater cause. He was a liberal among fundamentalists. But, tragically, he never allowed the world to see the "uniter" in him. They only saw the "divider." I only wish that he had gone on to be another Billy Graham. Someone who not only could stand for what he believed, while gaining the admiration and respect of those who disagreed with him.

That's important because so much of Jerry Falwell's message will never reach the ears of the people who could benefit from it. They only see hate and anger. It's too bad, becuase I saw the Billy Graham side of Jerry Falwell. I only wish the world had seen it too.


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