Amid news of the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s death earlier this week, the coverage was predictable. Conservatives who benefited from the pioneering televangelist’s forays into politics praised his stances and lamented his departure from the stage, while liberals took it upon themselves to assume the same role of unrelenting judge that they found so abhorrent when Falwell, himself, played it.
But beyond the noise of the polarizing political reactions what is often missed is the intensely personal and human dimension to Reverend Falwell’s death; that is what I experienced.
While I normally play the role of the Vatican scribe covering the colossus of all things Catholic, I don’t often mention that a big part of my mom’s Italian, South Philly-bred clan actually belonged to Falwell’s flock.
Several of my cousins are alums of his Liberty University in Lynchburg, and a couple have stayed on as part of the Rev’s ministry team. I got to meet Jerry Falwell on numerous occasions and my trips to Blue Ridge country were always exercises in the best of practical ecumenism: some of the Baptist relatives would come with me to Mass at the local parish, and I’d tag along for Dr. Falwell’s Sunday morning service at Thomas Road Baptist Church. Long before I got any Catholic bishops to go on-record, I could—and did—get the Evangelical prelate on the line, easily. And, last summer, when my uncle—whose voice and appearance were eerily similar to that of his pastor—lost his battle with cancer, Falwell rearranged his schedule to be there for my aunt and cousins as the long, difficult farewell began.
So for me, Jerry Falwell’s death isn’t about the passing of some abstract political titan or Bible magnate. It’s more like a death in the family.
This was hammered home as soon as reports came across the news wires that the preacher had been found unconscious at his desk and was in “gravely serious” condition. When a religion story of that magnitude breaks, I’m usually off and running, putting a piece together or pooling details, quotes, context.
But not on this one. My first instinct was to call my aunt. I couldn’t help but feel for her as she sobbed on the other end of the line, breaking the call for a moment and coming back with the news, an hour before its announcement: “Rocky, he’s dead.”
Another of my aunts—who never fully got over the departure of two of her siblings from Church two decades back—tried to snap that it was a feeling we Catholics knew, too, when we lost Pope John Paul II.
While those were emotional days and, admittedly, I lost it in those first hours after word of the papal passing came down in April 2005, it wasn’t the same. Much as I loved John Paul, much as he meant to me and to so many, I didn’t see him in the flesh every Sunday, and he couldn’t pick me out of a crowd and call me by name.
My aunt in Virginia, however, was grieving a pastor she knew and who knew her, someone whose ministry had significantly enriched and impacted her life, personally and up-close.
Of course, many will view Falwell’s life through the prism of his high-wattage statements that were at times both divisive and incendiary. The temptation toward that path is irresistible in the current media culture where the jarring sound-byte is king, but its corrosive effects are there for all to see in this age of the blogosphere jungle. Sure, the Rev. had his moments. Did he ever…But unlike some of his colleagues, what lay behind them was a constant kindness, simplicity, and fidelity that his brushes with headline-making allowed to get lost in the shuffle.
When all is said and done, there were no Falwell scandals, amusement parks, deluxe residences situated on lavish compounds. Much of the time, I’m told, he ended up driving his own Chevy Suburban, just the way he liked it. For every controversial comment, there were countless others that simply encouraged his people to live the best they could, to row through adversity with faith, to be responsible in being faithful to the Gospel in their own lives, in their families and communities.
Despite the reverence his flock treated him with, he didn’t let the adulation get to his head. And, if there was any doubt, the schools, the homes he set up for unwed mothers or to help men get over chemical dependency are evidence that—for those brave enough to scratch beneath the surface—it would be unjust to judge the man on the basis of his rhetoric alone.
Falwell v Flynt
You know we live in interesting times when no less a character than Larry Flynt serves as the voice of reason. The porn-peddler and the preacher notably sparred after Flynt’s Hustler magazine printed a cartoon depicting Falwell as an inbreeding booze-hound, and Falwell’s lawsuit went all the way to the Supreme Court, where he lost.
Yesterday, Flynt paid tribute to his “good friend,” with whom he sometimes debated in public forums on the road. “My mother always told me that no matter how much you dislike a person, when you meet them face-to-face you will find characteristics about them that you like,” Flynt said. “Jerry Falwell was a perfect example of that. I hated everything he stood for, but… I always appreciated his sincerity.”
Flynt later backed it up on CNN, telling Larry King how he’d fax various diets to Falwell to try and help him lose weight and how, after the pastor made his infamous reference that Tinky-Winky the Teletubbie was a “gay role model,” an incredulous Flynt called him, asking, “Jerry, what are you doing?”
“I should’ve put more thought into it,” Falwell replied.
It doesn’t say much for modern discourse that friendship, kindness and respect are often only given when we’ve vetted others enough to see how their worldviews mesh with our own. If we’re really going to preach a Gospel of Life, however, we’ve got to be prepared to live it, and not only when it’s easy or convenient.
I haven’t always seen eye to eye with Jerry Falwell—or, for that matter, with my relatives who have been part of his flock. But while ideas and teachings are one thing, their practice is entirely another. Catholic, Mainline or Evangelical, conservative, liberal, libertarian, or anywhere in between, those of us who call ourselves Christian all come from a tradition where we’re charged to love our neighbor as ourselves.
The living witness of my family’s faith and love was inspired by the example of the pastor who taught them more than all the acres of newsprint and airtime he ever garnered could ever hope to cover. To grieve their loss and pray alongside them, both in hope for the future and for their comfort in these difficult days, is the best—and only—Christian thing to do.