Blood on The Journey: My Experience in Lynchburg by Lee Ellis
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Her blood was still on my pants as we raced to the airport after our weekend in Lynchburg, Virginia.
It had been called an Anti-Violence Forum by the Baptists at at Liberty University, but somehow I still felt violated and abused, and the pressing responsibility to speak up and take action for "the least of these" was weighing heavy on my heart. We didn't know what kind of violence we'd be facing when we had arrived there just two nights previously. Rumors that the Klan and other hate groups would be coming to disrupt our historic meeting with our number one adversary,The Rev. Jerry Falwell, kept me awake many a night preceding our Journey.
Friday turned out to be a long day of travel for everyone, and my partner Mark and I arrived at the very last minute after two long flights and a three hour drive. But finally there we were, 200 people of faith, gathered in the First Christian Church in Lynchburg - Soulforce Central. The Rev. Mel White had called us there to try and end the hate speech that leads to fear, violence and death to God's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered children. We were called "radical gay christian activists" by the press. Actually, we "radical activists" were both straight and gay; we were parents and we were priests. We were Jews and Buddhists, Christians and Quakers. We were black and pink, and every color of God's Holy Rainbow. We were just plain folk - trying to do the right thing.
Mel had at one time ghost-written books for Billy Graham and other christian convervatives. He had even penned Jerry Falwell's autobiography,until, that is, he came out as a gay man. Now some eight years later, along with his life partner, Gary Nixon, White has formed an ecumenical group called Soulforce, Inc. Soulforce is the term used by Martin Luther King and Ghandi for non-violent resistance to effect social transformation. It was actually a phone call from Coretta Scott King several years ago which convinced White that this was the only method which would insure justice and put an end to the suffering.
The first evening together for the "Lynchburg 200" as we were called, was for a deeply moving memorial service for the victims of hate crimes. It was originally scheduled to be held downtown on the Memorial steps by the banks of the James River, but the local authorities feared for our safety. So the Mayor himself welcomed us to his very own church and wished us well on our mission. Two dozen armed police officers from Lynchburg's finest protected us all weekend - and I got the impression they were glad to be there to help.
After a gay gospel band roused us into a joyous mood, I was introduced to sing my song, STRANGER AT THE GATE, for the crowd. I explained the meaning of an obscure word in the chorus - Anawim - which is Old Testament Hebrew meaning "the meek," "the poor in spirit", "the least of these". And here we were, people who had been oppressed all our lives, beginning to understand that it was indeed we who held the keys to the healing of God's Kingdom. For did not the Master Jesus say "As you do to the least of these - The Anawim - you do unto me" We were gathered there to give our adversaries a chance to do right by us, and in so doing find healing for all of God's children everywhere.
We told our stories as Mel passed the microphone around. A mother whose lesbian daughter hanged herself after she threw her out of the house. The sixty year old former Head Southern Baptist Army Chaplin who had just tearfully"come out". Three former Liberty University graduates who told of their terror while at college that they might be found out, lose their scholarships and be expelled One young woman, who had tried to commit suicide the night before her graduation from Falwell's college, now works in Florida providing counseling and housing for Gay Christian teens who have been abandoned by their fundamentalist parents. And on, and on.
Then the procession began. Life sized photos of every person who had been killed by hate crimes in the last year. There have been 31 gay bashings alone since the brutal murder of gay college student Matthew Sheppard, plus the teenagers from Columbine High School, Fort Worth Baptist Church, and many racial killings. Finally three pictures of more famous people killed by hatred were brought forth. Dr. King, Ghandi, and Jesus. Tears flowed as we lit candles and looked into their faces, hearing the grisly details of how they died. Ax beatings, being burned alive on a bed of tires, beheaded, dragged from a pickup truck.... And on, and on. We hugged strangers who knew us more intimately than our own families. We held on to each other, for we knew that we were each other. Then we went on to our hotels to prepare for the next day's events: Confronting the protesters face to face as we cleaned the streets of Lynchburg in a gesture of goodwill, breaking ground for a Habitat for Humanity House, for which we had collectively raised over twenty thousand dollars. And walking into The Lions Den to meet Rev. Falwell and his chosen 200 in front of 141 news organizations from around the world. Would we be safe? One thing was sure. We needed rest.
By the time we disbanded, Lynchburg was closed up tight as a drum and, having missed dinner in our rush to arrive on time, all Mark and I managed to find to eat were some stale, soggy chicken salad sandwiches on white bread from a gas station back on the main highway. The next morning we gathered at Soulforce Central once again and heard Mel's report of his and Jerry's appearances on Good Morning America and The Today Show. Jerry had actually appologised for his hateful rhetoric on national television! Would this weekend's events be easier than we had hoped? Hardly- but our hearts were encouraged!
We then began an advanced training session in the principles of non-violent resistance as taught by Martin Luther King and Ghandi. The primary goal of Soulforce is personal spiritual renewal. And from that renewal, comes transformation for the world. We were not there to change anyone but ourselves. We learned that our adversary is not the enemy. Untruth is the enemy. God loves Jerry Falwell and Fred Phelps just as much as She loves us. How do we engage in negotiations and find a common ground? How do we walk in love and non-violence relentlessly, and accept the suffering of others into our own beings without destroying ourselves? We were taught a Tibetan Buddhist meditation technique called Tonglen, in which you breathe in the suffering of another, transform it in your heart, and breathe back all the love and compassion you can. Little did we know how vital that technique would become for us.
We were also taught how to protect ourselves from mob beatings in Direct Actions. Rodney Powell, who had marched with Dr. King, taught us how to protect our brain stems from blunt force by dropping to a fetal position, and accepting the blows of hatred rather than resisting them, thereby risking an escalation to the conflict. A grandmother clasped her hands to the base of her brain stem and practiced with us. Would it be necessary to witness her being beaten up this very afternoon? Around and around in my mind ran the questions Rodney had asked us, which Dr. King had asked him. Are you willing to take this suffering onto yourself and return hatred and violence with love and non-resistance? How far will you go? Are you able to see your loved one take a beating and not step in to rescue her so as not to increase the conflict? Are you ready to die today, if necessary? I could not bring myself to eat lunch that day, and many of us wept as we clasped arms and sang the haunting words of the song from the eternal movement for peace and justice:
"Deep in my heart... I do believe... We shall overcome some day..."
After changing into our "Sunday Clothes" at the hotels we headed back to Soulforce Central for one last meeting before heading off to Thomas Road Baptist Church - home of Pastor Falwell and his multi- thousand congregation. Much has been reported in the press about Jerry cancelling the "dinner" with us. Here's what happened. Gary Bauer and his ultra conservative group, Focus on the Family, had put incredible pressure on Falwell not to eat with us, quoting a passage from St.Paul in First Corinthians in which Christians are forbidden to eat with "sinners." The truth of the matter is that the food was ready, and the caterers were waiting in the wings. But, in a grand gesture of goodwill, Mel told Jerry at the very last minute that we did not need to eat together- this meeting did not need to be about food. Since Jerry had apologized on national television, what was the point? Falwell was sticking his neck out for us, and we returned the appreciation. It was the forum on Anti-Violence that mattered, not a meal. Jerry knows he owes us 200 dinners And perhaps at that meal we can discuss the fact that the real sin of Sodom was inhospitality, and that Jesus had some of his best meals dining with "sinners" - just like Jerry - and just like us.
We were then given Hawaiian Tai Tea leaf leis by a woman from the Hawaiian Marriage project to give to our new Baptist friends in the spirit of Aloha - friendship. And we were given parking passes to distinguish us from the unwelcome protesters. As it turned out we did not have to clean the streets of Lynchburg because - the streets of lynchburg were immaculate! And that was indeed a blessing, for it kept us out of harms way.
Driving to the church in caravan style was an experience I'll never forget, especially when we neared the church and saw the masses of media trucks and signs of protesters like Fred Phelps, the Kansas minister who pickets the funerals of people who have died of AIDS, saying things like "GOD HATES FAGS", and "FALWELL AND WHITE IN BED TOGETHER." There were gay rights activists there as well, who didn't believe we should be capitulating to our adversary, the man who many hold responsible for so much anti-gay violence and death. They did not yet understand that Soulforce was at work, and God was indeed using us to work reconciliation in this world. Mercifully, the KKK had gathered en masse in New York City that day for a different rally. Another blessing.
As we got out of our cars, we stood in the glare of the media and sang "This little light of mine." We then walked calmly and hopefully under a banner reading ANTI-VIOLENCE FORUM into the Children's Gym next to the church, where the Main Event was about to begin. I must say that all of us who attended the forum had to all promise not to write what happened in that room. But I'm sure it's okay if I reveal that Falwell was gracious and kind, and gave a moving, seemingly heartfelt speech. What is of import, however, is what happened at the press conference 90 minutes later.
Falwell had arranged that the three gay Liberty graduates NOT be on the panel, so instead, Rev. Jimmy Creech, the United Methodist minister who is being tried within his church for performing a same sex blessing, and Marylou Wallen, the mother whose daughter killed herself, were substituted. Falwell then brought an "ex-gay" by the name of Michael Johnston, a person he introduced as "dying of AIDS" who had come back to the Lord, along with the Dean of the University, both of whom used more than their allotted time to preach at us. We had been ambushed! We were compared to prostitutes and drug dealers. Jerry loves them, and he would try to love us too. To a national press corps he said he would continue to love us in hopes of bringing us out of our sins and back to Christ. This from a man who just met with more than two dozen gay and lesbian priests and ministers.
My heart was in tatters. One one hand I felt that this was such a huge step for everyone concerned, and that Falwell genuinely wanted to make a difference. On the other hand I wondered if perhaps the gay protesters were right; Jerry was using us. But I decided that it wasn't like that. I understood his need to placate his right wing money- giving factions led by Bauer and the like. I slowly settled into the realisation that this was going to be a longer road than I thought. One thing Jerry was widely quoted as saying, however, is that there is nothing a child can do for a parent to erase that child from their hearts. That statement alone will save lives. So when it came my time to shake Jerry's hand, I did not lambaste him as some of our group did. I simply thanked him for his courage in having us there, and urged him to keep the dialog open at all costs. It was a messy, uncomfortable feeling I carried away with me that night.
Back at Soulforce Central we gathered and reviewed the days events. The overwhelming sense was that we had been violated, but we were still certain that we were on the right path. Despite our wounded feelings, great strides had been made. Good and genuine dialogs had been opened between us and Falwell's people. Many of us had church and brunch dates with some of Falwell's folks. But it was a night of deep, mixed emotions. In the press conference, Jimmy Creech had coined the term "Spiritual Violence." This is what happens when one is called a sinner over and over again. It eats away at the very fabric of your being, and undermines your sense of self esteem, which sadly too often leads to drug and alcohol abuse, promiscuity and suicide. It is this very kind of Spiritual Violence we all felt that night. One woman poignantly posed the question, "We learned to protect our our brain stems today. How in the world," she asked, "can you protect yourself from the effects of this verbal Spiritual Violence?"
The answer came unexpectedly the next morning after attending Jerry's church. The "ex-gay" did not preach at the main service as scheduled - Jerry did. He changed his mind in deference to Mel's plea, and did the preaching himself. But Michael Johnston did speak to a youth group in another part of the church grounds, and one of our members went to hear him. He said Michael was consumed with conflicted feelings and preached such vitriolic condemnation of gays, that he wanted to scream and run. But he didn't. He sat there, and practiced Tonglen, the buddhist practice we learned the day before. He breathed into his heart all of Michaels pain and anger and self hate, and breathed out as much love and acceptance to him as he could. As he reported to us Sunday afternoon, he said he didn't know if it changed Michael. But it had changed him. His anger was gone, and he simply felt compassion for this man. And there was our answer. This is one way of combatting Spiritual Violence. Tonglen. Return to Holy Breath, breathe in the suffering of yourself or another, and breathe back all the love you can.
That day Rev. Mel White called for a National Soulforce Action Against Spiritual Violence. We broke into groups and discussed how this would look. What would we do? This was an electric time - Soulforce in Action! We decided to go to the trial of Jimmy Creech and try to prevent it. Media en masse would be there to cover the trial of the straight man who performed the same sex blessing. The Methodist Church was going to make an example of Jimmy; a martyr - by defrocking him and expelling him from the church in their first church trial in over 100 years. The nation would be watching again in only four weeks time. And the rivers of anti-gay hate speech, this time cloaked in the religious words of a respected institution, The United Methodist Church - which has championed social justice since its' inception by the way - would find it's way into America's hearts. People would again question whether the church must be right - that we should love our gay brothers and sisters, but that we are second class citizens in the eyes of God, and not worthy of equal status in the Body of Christ.
So it had begun already. Another Soulforce Action. Yes, we would go. Of course we would be there. I hugged Jimmy and said I wouldn't miss it for the world. I did not miss the tear in his eye as he said farewell. One by one we hugged each other, exchanged information, and vowed to continue the struggle. Soulforce groups and churches would be springing up all over the country. Tearing ourselves away was hard, but we had a plane to catch, and we were running late.
The scenery was beautiful as we drove out of Lynchburg. Virginia was ablaze in the colors of fall. God's beauty stretched as far as the eye could see. And suddenly, there she was. On the side of the road, a black and carmel colored dog, who looked as if she had just been hit dead. Poor thing. But wait, her leg moved! Oh my God she's still alive! So many thoughts raced through my mind. What do we do? We're so late already and have hours to travel before we even get to the airport. We turned around instinctively, stopped across the road, and went to her. A lonely stretch of rural road. I went to the nearest dilapidated house and roused a toothless old man who didn't know the dog and said he wasn't feeling well. No, he didn't have a phone. When I got back, Mark was with her and a woman had stopped as well. Her passenger was an invalid without legs. I knelt by the dog and felt her broken body. She's alive. A tear was falling from her eye, and my heart opened. What on earth must she be feeling, I wondered? I thought of the reports of Matthew Shepards face when they found him, filthy, but for the places washed clean by his tears. I placed my hands on the helpless being and began whispering words of comfort - sounds of love. A long thick chain was wrapped around her body. She must have broken free from her yard and run off into the road, and I prayed fervently as we unbound her, and carried her further from the side of the road.
I tried to give her water, but she could not take any. I think she must have been hit in the face, for she couldn't move her mouth or head. Bright red blood dripped from her mouth and nose, and I realised I was kneeling in blood as I tried to comfort her. I felt her labored breaths. Her body was warm in my hands as I looked down at the red blood in the green grass. I felt such compassion for her and I suddenly knew for certain that this was not just the blood of just some poor animal. This was also Matthew Sheppard's blood. This was Jesus' blood. This was my blood. At that moment, a tiny crack in the fabric of the Universe seemed to open for me, and I realised this was no accident. God was using this horrible situation to test me and to teach me; to show me the constant and immediate need to do the right thing, to be always ready to go out of your way to help someone else. For we really are One. Take on the suffering of others and make it better. The very theme of our weekend was being relived here on the side of a lonely country road.
Just that week I had heard Fr. Bill Bacon, the priest who gave Matt Sheppard last rites, speak of Matthew in the hospital, wrapped in fresh white bandages. He said he thought of Lazarus. Unbind him! - isn't that what Jesus was saying to the churches? My mind raced back to the situation at hand. How can we help this dog? There isn't a vet for miles and we don't even know where we are. The woman had gone back to the last little town to look for help. As time marched on, what we ended up doing was to call the state police on our cell phone, and give the exact location. And then we left. We left the wounded dog on the side of the road.
Back in our comfortable rental car, I prayed that God would bless the dog and send help. The reply in my soul was simply - "I sent you!" As my heart sank it began to dawn on me. This social activism trip we had just been on was not about Jerry Falwell, or Lynchburg, or anything else I thought it was about. There is suffering in the world every single moment, and there is only us to do anything about it. The words of Dr. King rang in my ears. How far are you willing to go? What are you willing to give up to take on the suffering of others - Are you willing to die today?
We were the last two souls on that plane. My khakis were blood stained and I smelled like dog. My heart was raw, but my soul searching had only just begun. To this day, every day, I struggle with the questions I engaged that weekend. Mark and I will indeed be travelling to Grand Island, Nebraska in a few days. We will try to get The United Methodist Church to stop the trial of this just man, and move the debate concerning the real issue - inclusion for ALL of God's children - to the floor of it's General Convention where it belongs. We will lose four days wages, and we will pay for lodging, gas, a cat sitter, and bail money. For this time we are sure to be arrested. We will leave the comfort and safety of our home and friends and venture again into the unknown to advance the cause of social justice, a little bit at a time.
Mother Theresa once said "One cannot do great things. One can only do little things with great love." Every day I search my soul as I did that afternoon on the side of the road. Am I doing enough? Will it all turn out alright? All I know is that when I asked for assurance on that lonely road, all God said was..."I sent you."
C 1999 Lee Ellis All Rights Reserved
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