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Falwell Hopes to Give New Meaning to 'God's Country'

Land use: Conservative pastor envisions cradle-to-grave services in a master-planned Christian community.

June 29, 2002|CHRIS KAHN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

LYNCHBURG, Va. — The Rev. Jerry Falwell pulls the wheel hard right, sweat budding across his cheeks as he guides the Chevy Suburban around potholes in the dirt road.

It's a rough drive to the mountaintop overlooking his 4,300-acre property. But the view, he promises, is worth the trip.

Sprawled below is the red brick of Liberty University and his beloved Thomas Road Baptist Church. Now imagine golf courses, recreation centers, apartment complexes, he says. Maybe a ski lift up the mountain; maybe one of those revolving restaurants on top.

At 68, Falwell thinks often about what will remain when he's gone. If he gets his way in federal court this summer, the conservative pastor will leave his most visible legacy twinkling below--a master-planned Christian community where members of his flock can live from "birth to antiquity."

"You'll never have to leave this place," Falwell says. "You can come in at age 2, in our early learning center ... age 5 into our kindergarten, age 6 through 18 in our elementary and high school. Then on to Liberty University for four years."

For fun, local kids can already go to Falwell's Camp Hydaway summer camp. If residents develop a substance-abuse problem, there's his Elim Home for Alcohol and Drug-Addicted Men. If a woman has an unwanted pregnancy, she can go to the Liberty Godparent Home for Unwed Mothers.

Falwell followers ages 55 or older soon will be eligible to move nearby into Liberty Village, a 1,135-unit retirement center with its own markets, putting green, chapel and associate pastor from Falwell's church. The retirement condos, which run from $100,000 to $300,000, are under construction just outside Lynchburg.

Taking off his glasses, Falwell pauses to dispel what he already expects to be misinterpretations of his dream.

"We have no intentions of building a 'compound'--no wall is going to go up," he says. "If a non-Christian family applied, they would be accepted."

How about homosexual couples?

"That wouldn't work," Falwell says with a chuckle. While he can't legally bar anyone from living in his community, "they wouldn't be comfortable here--all these Christians would be witnessing to them."

Already, Falwell has built much of his community and employs about 2,000 people--more than the city government of Lynchburg. With donations now picking up since Sept. 11, he'll break ground on the putting green and recreation center this summer.

What's missing right now is the spiritual--and legal--connection to Thomas Road Baptist Church. Virginia's Constitution prohibits churches from owning more than 15 acres of land within a city and holding a corporate charter. Since the 1950s, the restrictions have forced Falwell to keep his church legally separate from the ministry and its related operations under a handful of separate corporations.

Combining the entire ministry under one board of deacons would simplify things, Falwell says, and it also would give him peace of mind that his ministry won't fall apart after he's gone.

"As long as I'm living, it makes no difference. But there will be another pastor one day," he says.

Falwell grew up just a few miles away with his twin brother. As he became a voice for religious conservatives, he accumulated tracts of land surrounding his church.

Since his Moral Majority folded in 1989, close associates say Falwell has increasingly focused attention here in central Virginia, consolidating his ministry and making good on an early dream to build a community for his followers.

Falwell successfully sued in federal court this year to force the state corporation commission to grant Thomas Road a charter, a preliminary step to consolidating his entire ministry. A federal judge is expected to rule on the land limitation sometime this summer.

If he prevails, Falwell envisions a community where his schools, neighborhoods and recreation facilities are all legally tied to Thomas Road. And the church would begin construction on a 12,000-seat auditorium next to the university.

The first residents will move into Liberty Village by August, and the entire community is expected to be complete in a few years.

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