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In a State of Grace : Religion: Writer and minister Mel White was a Christian evangelical success story until he came out of the closet. That's when former colleagues including Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham cut him off. But White says he is finding peace: 'I am gay, I am proud and God loves me.'

July 26, 1993|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DALLAS — The Rev. Mel White ghostwrote Jerry Falwell's autobiography, "Strength for the Journey," and Falwell's book about abortion.

He ghostwrote Pat Robertson's "America's Dates With Destiny" and Billy Graham's "Approaching Hoofbeats." He wrote speeches for Oliver North.

All the while, White had a secret that he prayed his bosses would never discover: He is gay.

It's no secret anymore.

"Though I don't know exactly where God is leading you, I do know where God is leading me," White, 53, proclaimed last month from the pulpit of the Cathedral of Hope, the largest gay and lesbian church in the world.

"Today, I give up my place of privilege as a prosperous, upper-middle-class, middle-aged, white, slightly balding, pretend-heterosexual male," he continued to the several hundred congregants celebrating his induction as a pastor of the cathedral. "And I say to my friends on the religious right, 'I am gay, I am proud and God loves me without reservation.' "

The cheering was long and loud. It was a big moment in the history of the cathedral and for its denomination, the Metropolitan Community Church, an ecumenical Christian organization founded in 1968 to serve gay men and lesbians. For them, White is a major catch--and not just because he was the ghostwriter to the superstars of television evangelism.

He was in his own right, until recently, a pillar of the evangelical community.

White wrote inspirational books under his own name that sold millions, and he produced more than 50 Christian-themed film documentaries, many of which are still shown by churches around the world.

In Pasadena, where he lived with his wife and raised two children before coming out, he had his own church, Pasadena Covenant, and taught at Fuller Theological Seminary, the largest nondenominational evangelical school in the country.

"He is quite artistic and imaginative, and very talented," said Falwell, speaking from his office in Lynchburg, Va. "And on top of that, he's just a nice guy."

"He was the Christian evangelical success story," said Lake Elsinore psychologist Phyllis Hart, who was on the Fuller faculty with White. "He had done so much in his life, he had an outstanding marriage. Everyone thought of him as a great Christian."

Since White came out last year, however, he has had little contact with the evangelical world in which he was once feted. Falwell and Graham have not responded to his letters and telephone calls. Robertson wrote him only once to say homosexuality is a sin that goes against the teachings of the Bible and does not "fulfill the purpose of sex, which is reproduction."

Hart, who said she fell out of favor at Fuller in part because she doesn't consider homosexuality abnormal, said she is not surprised that most of White's former bosses and friends have cut off contact.

"When they worked with Mel, I'm sure it never crossed their minds that he could be gay. For them, 'a great Christian' and 'gay' do not go together."

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They didn't go together for White, either. For decades, he fought his homosexuality with prayer and various therapies, including electric shock behavior modification. He said he tried twice to commit suicide.

When he ghosted for prominent evangelicals in the 1970s and 1980s, White insisted his name not appear anywhere in their books, even in the acknowledgments.

"The irony is, I really believed in Robertson and Falwell and the rest," said White, driving along the verdant flatlands outside Dallas. He was heading for the isolated ranch--the location of which he asked not be divulged--he shares with his lover, Gary Nixon.

"I insisted my name not be in their books because I did not want them to be hurt if it came out that I was gay. It was important to me that Jerry Falwell not be scandalized because his biographer was a queer."

White was well compensated for his work. For Falwell's autobiography alone, he earned $125,000 for about five months of work.

"I can say I did it to put my kids through college, to pay the bills for my wife and family." he said. "I can say I did it because it was fun, traveling around the world on private jets, staying in nice places."

Just as Falwell still speaks warmly, to some degree, about his former ghostwriter, White said he has fond memories of the time he spent with Falwell and the others.

"I have a hard time communicating this--even to my closest friends--but in fact, I like Jerry Falwell. He's fun to be with," he said. "Billy Graham was my hero from the time I was a little boy. I loved him. He's a great man."

White drove on in silence for a few moments, past billboards advertising the Faith Family Academy, the Christ Faith of the Nations organization and other groups in this Bible Belt city where evangelism is a tourist attraction.

"I can make all kinds of excuses for what I did," he said. "I am embarrassed and ashamed that I stayed with them for so long (because of their anti-gay rhetoric). But it's not an easy thing for someone who didn't grow up in a religious family to understand.

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