The Other Preacher in Lynchburg: My Life Across Town from Jerry Falwell

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9780312538583: The Other Preacher in Lynchburg: My Life Across Town from Jerry Falwell

The Other Preacher in Lynchburg: My Life Across Town from Jerry Falwell

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About the Author:

John Killinger has been senior minister of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, distinguished professor of religion and culture at Samford University in Birmingham, and executive minister and theologian at Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. He is the author of more than sixty books, one of which, The Changing Shape of Our Salvation, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He lives with his wife in Virginia.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Choosing Lynchburg

I had grown up in the Southern Baptist tradition and always intended to be a pastor, not a teacher. Things being what they were in the South, though, my training at Harvard Divinity School was suspect—as was my having earned a Ph.D. in English literature before going to Harvard—and I wasn't called to a church. So I had come back South as a professor of English in Georgetown College, a small Baptist school in Kentucky. After two years at Georgetown, I had gone to Princeton Theological Seminary to work with Paul Scherer, a famous Lutheran homiletician, and ended up with another kind of doctorate. I didn't realize it, but I was only putting myself farther and farther from "callability" by a Baptist congregation.

From Princeton I went to Louisville to be the academic dean of a new liberal arts college—one with Baptist origins— but my heart wasn't really in academics, it was still in being a pastor. So when I had an opportunity to go to Vanderbilt University as a professor in the divinity school, I lost no time in accepting it. At least I would be working with preachers, and, who knew, I might one day end up as pastor of a church.

Vanderbilt and Nashville,where it is located,were a wonderful interlude in my life and the lives of my family, which now included, in addition to my wife, Anne, two sons, Eric and Krister. We built a lovely new house in Nashville, the boys attended fantastic private schools, I was invited to speak in more venues than I could possibly accept, we spent two academic years and several summers abroad, I wrote a number of books, and I had many bright and capable students, some of whom I still enjoy as friends.

One of the most important aspects of life at Vanderbilt was its strong sense of ecumenism, which enabled me to grow from being a Baptist into being a Christian-in-general, without respect to denomination. That was just as well, as I had a run-in with the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board in Nashville only a year after going to Vanderbilt.

I was speaking to a large student conference at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, California, one of five Southern Baptist seminaries. My first address—the program committee had assigned the title for it— was called "Christ in a World of Revolution." In my second address, "Christ Is a Revolution"—my own title—I made a few seconds' worth of remarks about the denominational slavishness exhibited by the Sunday School Board, where several of my friends worked. My friends' thoughts and writings, I knew, were constantly reviewed and bowdlerized before reaching the public. The response, from the school's president as well as from Sunday School Board officials, was as outraged and instantaneous as if I had whipped out a machine gun and mown down everybody on the speaker's platform.

It was my first real experience with bureaucracy and how quickly it moves to cover and protect itself. First, the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board sent out a web of fabricated reports and news releases accusing me of everything from inaccuracy to immorality. (I had used an illustration from a James Baldwin novel; ipso facto, I was almost certainly a homosexual.) It canceled my future speaking engagements in the denomination and threatened to withhold funding from institutions that hosted me. Later, it even circulated false stories to the effect that I had begged the pardon of the Sunday School Board's executive secretary, wept before a large audience over the error of my ways, and had been graciously embraced and forgiven.

Employees of the board, moreover, were secretly warned that they would be dismissed if seen associating with me. As a result, several close friends in the church we belonged to no longer spoke to us, and others took every precaution against detection when communicating with us. Our lives as Baptists were suddenly, peremptorily, and definitively over. From then on, we would be ecumenists whether we wished to be or not.

Despite the overall happiness of our lives in Nashville, though, I began at midlife to desire what many men desire in that period of their lives—to revisit earlier vocational pathways and possibly resume one of those. I had become a highly successful young academic. I was widely known, had won grants to study abroad, had been promoted to full professor, and had published several books. But I found myself yearning again to be a pastor, and to fulfill my earlier sense of calling as a minister. I had at various times entertained invitations to become the minister of several large, progressive churches—in North Carolina, New York, and Minnesota—and had dismissed them without a thought. Now, in my middle years, I became very serious about making a change.

I talked with congregations in Houston, Grand Rapids, Denver, Los Angeles, and then, almost reluctantly, Lynchburg, Virginia. I was very much attracted to the church in Los Angeles, and was on the verge of accepting its invitation, when a winsome, late-middle-aged man named Jack Cosby and his wife, Anne, showed up at a statewide Disciples of Christ conference where I was speaking in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. They were from the First Presbyterian Church of Lynchburg, Virginia, Jack confided in his soft voice, and would be grateful if I would meet them for breakfast.

"No," said Anne. "You're not interested in going to Lynchburg. Let's not take our breakfast hour in this lovely place to meet with them."

"You're only afraid I'll listen to them," I said.

"You will," she said. "I know you will."

She was right.

Jack Cosby was one of the most inviting, irresistible men I ever met. Tall, slightly bent, and rough-hewn—I often thought of him as "Lincolnesque"—he wasn't physically attractive. In fact, he was almost the opposite. But he had such a kind heart and such a gentle civility about him that I couldn't say no to his invitation to visit Lynchburg and talk with their search committee. Before we left Gatlinburg, we had arranged a date for the visit.

Anne and I drove to Lynchburg with a sense of its being a doomed visit from the start. I knew almost nothing about Lynchburg except, as I could tell from the map, it seemed to sit in the middle of nowhere. There was no major institution of learning there, the nearest real theater and music were three hours away, in Washington, D.C., and the town's only claim to fame, as far as I could tell, was that it was the home of Jerry Falwell, who was somehow connected to the newly formed Moral Majority, about which I knew very little and cared less.

"We'll go for a couple of days," I told Anne. "Then we'll drive home. It will give us a chance to get away and do some thinking. We can consider moving to that church in L.A."—which is what I fully expected us to do.

The search committee members at First Presbyterian were all lovely, cultivated people who knew exactly how to appeal to my sympathies. They had been looking for a new pastor for two years. At the end of the first year, they had identified someone they wanted, but, after agreeing to come, he changed his mind and remained with his church in Florida.

They told a lot of funny stories about their experiences going into other churches to listen to prospective preachers.

In one town, they arrived early, parked a couple of blocks from the church, and made their ways individually to the church and sat in different parts of the sanctuary so they would not be recognized as a search committee. But the pastor they were there to scrutinize, unaware of their mission and wishing to be hospitable, asked all visitors to stand and tell the congregation where they were from. Sheepishly, one by one, they confessed that they were from Lynchburg, Virginia.

The congregants soon realized there was a predatory committee in their midst and broke out in laughter. It was an awkward moment, but the people were so nice to the visitors that it overcame their embarrassment.

And when they had heard him preach, they decided they didn't want that minister after all!

Another time, when they had .own to Florida to eavesdrop on another minister, two young men on the committee went out to a roadhouse for a beer. As they stood at the bar, an attractive young woman came up to the handsomer of the two, a businessman named Jim Christian, and asked him to dance. They were on the dance floor when she asked Jim where he was from. He told her.

"Oh," she said, "you're a long way from home. What are you doing down here?"

"You wouldn't believe it if I told you," he said, lazily gyrating to the music.

"Try me," she said.

"I'm with a church pulpit nominating committee," he said. "We're here to look at a minister."

Suddenly, the woman stopped dancing and stood absolutely still, studying Jim's face. Deciding that he was telling the truth, she promptly turned on her heels and walked away, deserting him in the middle of the floor.

I liked those people. Every one of them. I liked it that they had a sixteen-year-old boy, Ed Richards, on the committee, and that they let him talk and listened to him as if what he said was as important as anything the rest of them said. A couple of elderly women were on the committee too, and they were accorded the same courtesy.

There were also a financial adviser, the owner of a large roofing company, a leather broker, a doctor's wife, a nuclear scientist's wife, a teacher, an attorney's wife, a department store executive, and of course Jack Cosby, who was president of the American Federal Savings and Loan Association.

Jack also happened to be the brother of Gordon Cosby, the minister who founded the famous Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C.—celebrated in Elizabeth O'Connor's book Call to Commitment—and whose wife, Mary Cosby, was a well-known inspirational speaker. Mary and I had been together on a program for a large gathering of United Methodist pastors in Macon, Georgia, and it was she who had given my name to Jack.

There were four Cosby brothers, all of whom except Jack became ministers, and one sister, Mary Gordon Cosby, who married a minister. One of the brothers, Beverly, had founded an ecumenical fellowship in Lynchburg called the Church of the Covenant that operated along the same lines as Gordon's church in Washington, requiring members to pray and study the Scriptures daily, tithe their incomes, and become regularly engaged in ministries for the poor and homeless. I remember saying once from my pulpit at First Presbyterian Church that, pound for pound, it was the finest church in Lynchburg.

I think Jerry Falwell was mentioned only one time in all the hours I spent with the search committee. I asked if his being in Lynchburg affected life at First Presbyterian Church. Falwell was on the other side of town, they said, and they hardly ever thought about him. They were too busy living their own lives, tending to their own problems, trying to be a church in their own way. They didn't speak ill of Falwell or his ministry. It was just that he didn't seem relevant to their existence.

They were smart. When we got home, the phone rang. One of the men on the committee wanted to speak to our boys, who were then sixteen and nineteen. He said, "We're talking to your dad and mom about moving to Lynchburg. We think you ought to see Lynchburg for yourselves so you'll know what that might mean to you."

They invited our sons to .y to Lynchburg, at their expense, and spend a long weekend with them. The boys were delighted, and felt very important. When they got there, the committee wined and dined them just as they had us. They took them down to Smith Mountain Lake for a night or two. Jack and Anne Cosby had a lovely home there, and an amphibious car, one that ran on land and on the water as well. The boys had a great time "driving" across the lake.

They came home and said, "Dad, you've got to go to Lynchburg!"

When I prayed about what I should do, that was the message I got too: I had to go to Lynchburg.

I was flabbergasted, because I had had no intention of going there. But I knew it was what I had to do.

For those who have never been in the Christian ministry or had close relatives who are, I should explain something. Ministers often do things that seem irrational or unexplainable. It has to do with their faith, and the sense that they are fulfilling their destiny by going where they are sent regardless of their personal desires or logic of purpose.

All the little arrows in my head were flashing toward Los Angeles. It was a larger church, it was in a major city, it offered a much more impressive stipend and a lot more opportunities for the family. But I knew, the way ministers do, that I was supposed to go to Lynchburg.

It was crazy. It was wild. It was illogical. But that was where I was supposed to go.

Lynchburg in 1980 was a sleepy little town of 67,000 nestled beside the James River on the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The largest town in the United States that wasn't on or near an interstate highway, it had lost its bid for a regional airport to Roanoke, some fifty miles away. Its own dinky little airport was serviced primarily by commuter planes flying north or south between Charlotte and Raleigh. A friend said when he heard we were moving to Lynchburg, "You'll love the restaurant at the airport. But be sure to take plenty of quarters." He was referring, of course, to the snack machines.

Like Rome, the city was built on seven hills. The roads and streets, viewed from the air at night when they were outlined by streetlights, traced crazy-quilt, unpredictable patterns that looked like the wild scribblings of a child on a tablet. That was because they followed the horse and cow paths around the many smaller hills instead of heading directly toward distant objectives. I never quite got the hang of them, and often found myself having to turn around and go in a different direction because I'd taken the wrong street.

Frances FitzGerald, in a New Yorker article in 1981, created an accurate portrait of Lynchburg. "The vista from the top of its one twenty-story building," she wrote, "is mainly of trees and a bend in the river." Despite the fact that there were about two hundred small factories in the town, she said, there wasn't much traffic, and on Sunday almost all the cars in town were parked near its churches.

It was a beautiful little city, with lots of antebellum houses and wonderful, ancient trees. Main Street, which was essentially the only business street downtown, ran through several blocks of old brick buildings, now mostly occupied by insurance agencies, antique stores, and small eateries, then west across a gorge, up the hill via Rivermont Avenue into what had once been an elegant section of big houses, out past Randolph-Macon College and Baptist Hospital, where it became Boonsboro Road, and continued for several miles past a small shopping center and Boonsboro Country Club into the foothills of the Blue Ridge. First Presbyterian Church sat on an expansive green campus just off the junction of Boonsboro Road and Virginia Episcopal School Road. Everything about this end of town was quiet,wooded, sedate, and laid-back.

Thomas Road Baptist Church and the rest of Falwell's empire lay on the other side of town, just off a short bypass road connecting the town's only real mall and most of the city's motels and restaurants. The people on our end of town went over there to shop, but the people on that end seldom came out to our neighborhood except when they needed to use the Baptist Hospital. Most of the doctors in town—Lynchburg had an unusually fine cadre of physicians—lived out our way, most of the laboring classes the other way.

The biggest thing that had ever ...

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