First Person: Growing Up in Falwell's Church

My mom used to say Jerry could move mountains. Always "Jerry," never "Falwell." In Lynchburg, Va., the Hill City, there are several Falwell families, and depending on which part of the city you're from, there are either good Falwells or bad Falwells. By using "Jerry," there is no ambiguity—everybody knows exactly which Falwell you're talking about. For my family, card-carrying Moral Majority members, he was a good Falwell. And that made me a "Jerry's kid."

My mom and dad fell in love with Jerry and his ministry early on. They were youth-group leaders in their Brown City, Mich., church and they took their high-school kids on cross-country tours of Bible colleges with the hopes the teens would attend Christian universities—"Christian" meaning "born-again" evangelical.  (In their strictly interpreted book, Catholicism and backsliding Protestantism wouldn’t get you where you needed to go—namely the Promised Land.) So after one such trip they decided to move all five of us kids to the Blue Ridge Mountains so we could be part of Jerry's growing majority. He was "doing the Lord's work" and they wanted in.

My parents worked at his new school, Liberty Baptist College, now Liberty University. It was a natural move for my dad, who had been a teacher and a Christian counselor to troubled teens. Jerry had just started the Moral Majority two years earlier and was trying to right everything that was wrong with our country—the lack of prayer in our schools, the acceptance of abortion, the advancement of a homosexual agenda, the abandonment of God by our government. He was packing the pews in his massive Thomas Road Baptist Church (not quite "mega" by today's standards, but huge at the time). Ushers at the 11 a.m. service would rush in with folding chairs to accommodate the masses, dressed in their Sunday best. The overflow crowd would wait in the lobby, listening to the sermon over the speakers. If you were really late, your car would be banished to the far, far, far overflow parking lots, and you would stand the entire time.

And that was just the main service. As good believers—and as Jerry's employees—you were expected to attend Sunday school, Sunday-night services and Wednesday-evening prayer meetings, as well. And then there were the youth-group functions for us kids. We went to his Lynchburg Christian Academy day school. My brothers and sisters went on to his Liberty University. You could reach the age of 22 without ever meeting a "nonbeliever," someone to challenge your beliefs. And that was partially the point. Spare the rod, spoil the child.

In Jerry's school during the early '80s, you couldn't wear jeans; girls couldn't wear pants at all. There was no dancing, no rock and roll, no movies, no bad words like "shoot" or "poop." If you used one, you'd get your mouth washed out with soap at home, and a paddling at school. We watched the "Star Wars" movies in Liberty's gymnasium, probably several years after the fact—with all the ungodly scenes deleted and bad words dubbed out.

Jerry always said hi. I don’t think he knew exactly who I was as a child but he recognized me as a Groat, and he would wave, often from the drive-thru of the Wards Road McDonald's. He liked to eat and he had a personality as big as his belly. He was a good ole boy with Southern charm, homespun jokes and a booming voice that commanded attention. Going to church every week was a spectacle, complete with TV cameras, hot lights, showy choral arrangements and our local star vocalists. Music and greetings lasted for half an hour (in addition to the cameras, the Baptists on stage faced a clock). The sermon went on for about 25 minutes (with lots of men murmuring "Amen"), followed by the altar call. Always the altar call and a chance to get right with God, to be saved, to be born again. Typically his wife, Macel, played "Just As I Am, Without One Plea" on the piano. Even years after I left the church and his beliefs behind—my God wouldn't send me to hell; after all, He made me gay—I always appreciated his charm. I could see how it was easy to fall in love with Jerry.

And many did. He talked about growing his church from a small gathering at the local Donald Duck bottling company to what became his television empire, "The Old Time Gospel Hour"—which spanned the globe, if not in truth then in our minds. He had a vision: a City on the Hill for the Hill City. He had created Liberty Mountain, the home of his university, from scratch; he had literally moved a mountain, and it only took faith, some hard work, and money—lots of money. He was always soliciting money for a new church or a Christian retirement home, a new sports arena that would take Liberty sports to the next level, an expansion of the university. We never questioned it, we just gave as we could. I once peeked at my Dad's tithe and it was well over God's required 10 percent.

Even after Jerry took over Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s operation in the wake of the PTL scandal—raising money in an ultimately failed attempt to save it—and attendance at his own church began to wane (the folding chairs were no longer needed), we scoffed at the TV depictions of Jerry. The notion of him making power plays was ridiculous. He was doing the Lord's work, and it took a strong hand to make such vision happen. Yeah, he asked for lots of money but God's work takes a lot of that.

I remember my mom being especially excited about helping Jerry into his commencement regalia one year (there was even a photo!). It was a privilege to be so close, to be of use to someone God himself was using in such a special way. In our tiny conservative world, Jerry was a star.

When I was 14 my mom got sick with cancer, and Jerry stopped by the hospital room several times. He would pray with her and for her. A common practice, he put her at the top of the prayer list and asked for the congregation to pray for her at all the church services. "Pray for a miracle," he would say. She only left the hospital briefly in the months that followed. But she still insisted on going to church, auburn wig and ice-cubed lips and all. Jerry recognized her in the crowd, had her stand (barely, and with help on all sides). "We're praying for you," he said from the pulpit. And I'm sure that meant the world to her.

He officiated at her memorial service shortly after, shook hands and consoled us for our loss. He probably said something like, "It's hard for us to understand, but God has a reason. It's all part of His plan." For me, it was the beginning of the end of my faith. I was a momma's boy and I could never quite get over God taking her away so young—watching her balloon, yellow, crackle and die. I had prayed hard, hard like they said, prayed for a miracle. Plus, we had had Jerry on our side. He was the guy who could move mountains.