Dozens of students at conservative Liberty University greeted members of a gay and lesbian organization with open arms on Monday despite contempt from the school's founder, the Reverend Jerry Falwell. Fifty-five members of Soulforce, a Lynchburg, Va.-based gay rights group, met with Liberty students to discuss academic freedom issues at the campus and the treatment of gays and lesbians. Liberty students went out of their way to welcome the Soulforce members with cookies, bottled water, and lots of friendly dialogue. "I'm glad they're here, and I don't see anything wrong with them being here, getting to know each other and loving each other," said Natalie Bullock, a Liberty student from Cincinnati.
But the notoriously antigay reverend Falwell, who founded the Christian school in 1971, sternly condemned homosexuality during a regular Monday convocation attended by Liberty students, faculty, staff, and Soulforce members. "Contrary to rumors, this is not 'Gay Day' at Liberty University," said Falwell, urging Liberty students not to accept any literature from the group. The university had no comment beyond Falwell's message, and Falwell did not meet with Soulforce members.
Despite Falwell's admonishments, dozens of Liberty students gathered in small groups with members of Soulforce, which represents gay and lesbian student organizations at several Virginia colleges and universities. Members wore brightly colored shirts with the organization's Web site URL printed on the front, and many wore stickers reading "Stop spiritual violence."
Soulforce director Mel White wanted to deliver to Liberty's library copies of a book titled What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality and to give professors small rainbow stickers for their doors to designate their classrooms as safe havens for students with questions about their sexuality. However, after the group left for an afternoon news conference, campus police refused to allow them back on campus. There was heavy security from campus police and Lynchburg city police, but there were no incidents. "We're not here to change Jerry's mind," White said. "We're not here to convince his students that Jerry is wrong. We're here to establish relationships with Liberty's students, and we've done that. This has been a terrific day."
White said his group had dined with 20 gay Liberty students on Sunday evening. He estimated that of Liberty's 8,000 students, "300 to 400 are gay." Seth Croft of Yorktown, a sophomore at the University of Virginia and a member of Soulforce, said he was surprised by the reception from Liberty students. He said some female students brought the group muffins and cookies Monday morning. "We had been told they wouldn't speak or associate with us in any way," Croft said. "It was a great interaction. They wanted to talk to us, which was surprising."
Benjamin Williams, a Liberty sophomore from Portsmouth, said Soulforce had a right to be on campus even if the group's views differ from many others' at Liberty. "We shouldn't be judgmental. We shouldn't go out there hating on them," Williams said. "They are still people too, and we need to love them just like Christ does." (AP)