A missionary for equality

A decade ago, the Southern Baptist Convention would have welcomed Rev. Mel White with open arms. He'd been around the evangelical church his whole life, first as a preacher's kid and later as a pastor and seminary professor himself. He held a doctorate in theology, and had been honored for Christian filmmaking and book writing. He was a family man, with a wife of 25 years and two kids. More than all that, he was a confidant to the most respected fundamentalist icons, having ghostwritten for Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Billy Graham.

But when White shows up at the Southern Baptist Convention's gathering here next week, he'll leave in handcuffs.

Why? In 1991, White made an announcement that shocked the church and his former associates: He is, gasp, gay. And the judgment began.

Because Southern Baptists have been out front in the fight against homosexual acceptance, White and his organization, Soulforce, will protest outside the Orlando/Orange County Convention Center, where 15,000 delegates will attend the annual national meeting June 13-14.

Homosexuality is not an agenda item at this year's gathering, which will feature a repudiation of female clergy. Rather, White's stand is geared to the growing epidemic of anti-gay sentiment, which he links to fundamentalist activism. For decades now, Baptist leaders have talked about a "homosexual agenda" -- gays trying to obtain "special rights" and "recruit" people, for instance. They've equated homosexuals with pedophiles, saying -- without any evidence -- gays are predatory and should not be allowed near children.

That hard-line stance has created victims. Take, for instance, the murder of Matthew Shepard.

"They're directly responsible," says White, now a minister in the gay-dominated Metropolitan Community Church. "They have blood on their hands."

Under Baptist dogma, homosexuality is a sin, the deviant behavior of those who have turned their backs on God and his teachings, forbidden by the Bible. If a gay man worked hard enough, that dogma preaches, he would be "cured" of his homosexuality -- or at least could be abstinent.

Well, White did try. Over 25 years, he spent $250,000 trying to set himself straight. Along the way, he and his then-wife employed a number of crackpot ideas, including electroshock therapy and exorcism, to no avail. "Southern Baptists are still doing this stuff," he says. Indeed, there is a strengthening movement to "help" homosexuals go straight.

Finally, he gave up. In the end, he concluded, God loved him just the way he was. And the Bible, he insists, is a gay-friendly book; he argues that fundamentalist leaders feed their flocks misinformation to suit their own homophobia.

That's something Baptists strongly deny. "`Gay religious activists` don't take responsibility for doing wrong," says Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee chairman Claude Thomas. "What I hear is a blame game." In other words, White is reading into the Bible what he wants, not vice versa, and is deflecting blame for his guilt onto someone else -- in this case, the Southern Baptists. Still, Thomas continues, he's in no position to judge the veracity of White's Christianity.

Soulforce -- the name comes from Mahatma Ghandi's teachings -- is the non-profit organization set up by White and his longtime partner, Gary Nixon, to present the case for homosexual acceptance in the religious community through nonviolent resistance. White compares his quest to those undertaken by Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr., and images of both are woven into Soulforce's logo.

He has organized protests at each of the major denominational conventions this summer: the United Methodist General Convention last month in Cleveland, the Presbyterian General Assembly this month in Long Beach, Calif., and the Episcopalian Convention in July in Denver. Each of these more moderate denominations is taking up the weighty issue of same-sex marriage.

Soulforce's protest here was a sort of last-minute addition, brought about because of the political clout the 15.8 million-member denomination has amassed in conservative political circles. Indeed, no other single group has more successfully pressured politicians to shape the country's social agenda, having led efforts to retain anti-sodomy laws, forbid gay marriage and prevent anti-discrimination laws based on sexual orientation.

That doesn't mean the Baptists' positions aren't controversial within their own ranks. This year's expected decision that women cannot serve as clergy has created what could become a permanent rift within the denomination. Two years ago, the denomination riled members -- and earned derisive headlines -- by declaring that wives should be submissive to their husbands.

White hints that some of protesters in Orlando may be among the Southern Baptists' upper echelon. And he, too, knows how to grab a headline: In Cleveland, those arrested for their peaceful demonstration outside the Methodist meeting included Ghandi's grandson, Arun, and King's daughter, Yolanda.

This protest is, in one sense, the next stage of those that have targeted the Southern Baptist Convention since 1997, when anti-gay rhetoric was galvanized with its boycott of Disney for, among other things, being too gay-friendly. The fundamentalist fervor built until the statements were simply silly: In 1998, Robertson warned of divine wrath after Orlando raised rainbow flags for gay pride month, and Falwell outed Teletubby Tinky-Winky.

While such commentary may not be dangerous in and of itself, White says, the danger lies in what it helps create: The Rev. Fred Phelps. Phelps and his Topeka, Kan., congregation -- Baptist, but not Southern Baptist -- lead the hate-filled charge to purge America of homosexuals. The church's website features a picture of the deceased Shepard consumed in hellfire, along with a daily count of how long he's been there.

Phelps is a hatemonger, denounced by almost all religious organizations, including the Southern Baptists. Even so, White says, the culture is turning more and more against homosexuals. And the Baptists' social initiatives are now taking hold among what used to be more moderate denominations.

White doesn't expect his protest to change much. But he does hope his arrest will demonstrate to the church's "sexual minorities" that they are loved and accepted by God. He also prays that at some point, the moderates will reclaim the church from the fundamentalists. Such protests may be the first step.

"America won't be the victims of fanatics," he says. "Southern Baptists are being led down a terrible road. They're making fools of themselves; they're standing for lies."

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