LYNCHBURG, VA. Gay activists gathered in Rev. Jerry Falwell's hometown Saturday to announce a permanent presence in central Virginia.
"It's safe to come out," the Rev. Mel White, founder of the gay rights group Soulforce, told a rally of about 200 crowded under a chain of balloons tied like a rainbow.
"God has made you gay. You are all beautiful!"
White, a California minister who was friends with Falwell before announcing his homosexuality, said he decided to move to Lynchburg last year when Falwell said God allowed terrorists to attack America because of the work of gays, abortionists and feminists.
"Jerry Falwell is the source of misinformation about sexual orientation," White said. "He's a gadfly. He likes to say these horrible things."
Lynchburg, a sprawling city of 64,000 about 180 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., is also the home of Jerry Falwell Ministries. In five decades, Falwell has expanded his ministry to include Liberty University, retirement centers and elementary schools. He employs a few thousand people as many as the city government.
Soulforce has a mailing list of about 6,000 people nationwide.
Anti-gay protesters who, like many of the gay activists, were mostly from out of town gathered at the periphery and showered the rally with boos.
"We'll be here too, in defense of righteousness," Andrew Sansone yelled into the crowd.
Falwell stayed away from the event altogether.
"I'd be surprised if anyone from my church was there," Falwell said in a telephone interview.
Falwell said he still stood by his assessment of the terrorist attacks, blaming the "secularization of America" for exacerbating God's wrath.
"I just think those statements were ill-timed," he said.
Since White arrived, Falwell hasn't answered any of his phone calls or invitations to dinner. Falwell said his mind is made up about homosexuality, and he won't socialize with someone who he considers living in sin.
"But they are certainly welcome in the neighborhood," Falwell said.
"Our church doors will always be open and when they visit our church, I hope they will hear something really worthwhile."