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Jesus, Jerry, and Me
It was a warm spring evening in Lynchburg, Virginia. Monday, May 14, 2007. My husband, Jerry Falwell, and I drove across town enjoying how the Blue Ridge Mountains stood in timeless majesty against an azure sky, dressed in verdant green trees. Their branches waved in the gentle breeze like a benediction.
"Would you like to go to O'Charley's for dinner?" Jerry said, the usual twinkle of good humor in his eyes. "It's Monday."
"Oh Jerry, I'd forgotten!"
On Monday nights O'Charley's offered steak soup, a new dish on the menu. I'd longed to try it again, but I seemed to think of it only on Wednesday or Thursday or Saturday. Most people wouldn't expect a man like Jerry Falwell, who had so many major issues on his mind, to remember a little thing like getting his wife a bowl of steak soup. But then, most people didn't know my husband.
The crowd at O'Charley's was light as we slid into a booth. Jerry nodded and waved at some people across the room. We'd never met the young woman who waited on us, but after forty-nine years of marriage, I wasn't surprised by my husband's kindness to her.
"Where do you go to college?" he asked.
"I go to the community college," she said with a shy smile.
"Why aren't you at my university?" Jerry asked. "Liberty University."
"My parents can't afford it," she said, shrugging one shoulder.
"If you'd like to go to Liberty, I'll give you a full scholarship."
Her eyes lit like sparklers on the Fourth of July. "Are you serious?"
Jerry assured her that he was serious, and she floated away in a haze of disbelief. She'd had no idea when she walked up to our booth with her pad in hand that her life was about to change forever. But after almost fifty years of marriage to Jerry, I could have predicted it.
Once, some children had knocked a baseball over the fence into our yard. Before giving the ball back to them, Jerry wrote a message on it promising a scholarship at Liberty, and then he signed it. "Wait!" he yelled, chasing the kids down the street. "I want to add that it's a four-year scholarship." So I smiled at the young waitress who tried to be sedate but almost jumped for joy as she walked away.
Something else stands out in my mind about that evening. I remember that Jerry ate no more than two or three bites of his food. Instead, he seemed content to gaze across the table, his eyes tracing the familiar features of my face in a most unusual way.
It was almost as though he was seeing me for the first time. Or the last. As soon as the thought formed I pushed it aside. Jerry had looked across the table at me for almost fifty years.
Still...he focused on my face.
I savored my soup, aware of his scrutiny. Young people like our waitress often think those of our generation are trite when we repeat such worn expressions as, "Where did all the years go?" But one day they, like the rest of us, will look up, stunned that fifty years could have been so...brief.
That's why, as Jerry watched emotions flicker across my face, I reflected over our life together, and marveled. It had been quite a ride not at all what I'd envisioned when I'd married the skinny young man who founded Thomas Road Baptist Church.
Back then, neither of us had any idea where our journey would take us. I, for one, am glad. Timid as I've always been, it is best that I did not foresee meetings in the White House, traveling around the world, protestors, death threats, bomb threats, and a kidnapping plot. God's plan for our lives is so much bigger than anything we can imagine, and though I would have shied away from it had I known what lay ahead, I'm so grateful I did not miss it.
Neither Jerry nor I imagined that God was forging us into instruments He would use to affect thousands of people and the politics of a nation. We were unaware of the tapestry He'd been weaving all along. We just thought we were living our lives.
That's the way God works, but we didn't know that then.
I don't think what makes our story relevant is Jerry or Macel Falwell. We were...how shall I say it?...unlikely candidates. You could search the world and have trouble finding two more opposite people than Jerry and me.
I was a prim and proper lady who'd been raised in the arms of a hardworking, protective Christian family. Jerry used to say that, in my family, failing to pay a tithe was akin to murder. Though it was a bit of an exaggeration, he had a point.
In my home on Christmas morning, no one unwrapped a gift until the Christmas story had been read from the book of Luke. We never listened to any music except Christian music. We did not watch movies, and alcohol was forbidden. I was the youngest of three daughters with a younger brother on whom we doted. I was timid and hesitant about life, a trait that would progress with the years.
Jerry was the son of a bootlegger. His father was an agnostic and his grandfather an avowed atheist. His father shot and killed his own brother in self-defense. He was a shrewd businessman who made a small fortune, while drinking himself to death.
Jerry and his twin brother, Gene, were the youngest of five children in the Falwell family. Their mother, a quiet Christian woman, was a saint in the midst of a rough and rowdy family of Southern rebels.
I spent my younger years committed to Christ and to His church. Jerry had grown up without such commitment. Over the years his mother pressed him to go to church. For a while he accommodated her, but most Sundays Jerry walked in the front door and slipped out the back when no one was looking.
Throughout our marriage I was shy, fearful, and ever certain that none of Jerry's wild ideas would work. Jerry believed that anything was possible through prayer and hard work.
So you see, our story is not relevant because of who we were, for we were polar opposites, ordinary people with ordinary weaknesses, whose lives intersected with Jesus. Our story is relevant only because it reveals what God can do with two ordinary, if unlikely, people who dare to say yes to Him.
The Bible says that the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:25). Somehow, Jesus took us weak, foolish vessels that we were and confounded the wisdom of the world.
Our story is about Jerry, Jesus, and me, and what happened when our lives intersected.
In the Beginning
Jerry continued to gaze at my face while I ate my soup and pondered our differences. Why I was the one who had ended up sharing his life, I'll never know. I wasn't a fearless defender of human rights, after all. I felt ill-suited for life in the limelight. But strange as it might seem, I was the one God and Jerry chose. I guess they saw something in me the skittish little girl born on October 4, 1933, to Sam and Lucile Pate that I didn't.
What was it? Perhaps in part it was the heritage of faith, love, and integrity that I received from my parents. My father, Sam Pate, had been raised in a Christian home in Alum Creek, West Virginia. Although he was one of the smartest men I've ever known, Daddy completed school only through the third grade. Back in those days, you could teach school if you finished fifth. A lean man with brown hair and warm eyes, he moved to Richmond, Virginia, at the age of eighteen and found work.
A coworker invited him home for the weekend and Daddy met and lost his heart to a pretty young woman he saw sitting on the front step of the house next door. Her name was Lucile Donald and, of course, she became my mother.
A Supernatural Intersection
I was twelve years old when I gave my heart to Jesus. Six years later, still riding the wave of His love, I was swept into my first encounter with the man who would forever change my life. The stage for our meeting was set when the little Baptist church we attended sent a few families, including ours, to plant a new church Park Avenue Baptist. The new church had a cheery wooden sanctuary and two pianos, one on either side of the platform. My friend Delores Clark played one piano and I played the other. We also played for the pastor's early-morning radio broadcast.
During those years, I did not lack for male attention. But my pastor's young brother-in-law, Julius, was the most persistent. A handsome young man, he was pursuing a career as minister of music. Although my parents were very strict about my relationships, my mother adored Julius, and I was flattered when he proposed to me. The truth is that I was more interested in the concept of marriage than in its reality. When Julius slipped an engagement ring on my finger, I knew I wasn't ready to leave my happy family to make one of my own.
I don't want to hurt his feelings, I thought. I can always give it back to him later.
I didn't mind being engaged, but I had no interest in getting married.
One Sunday night in January 1952, wearing my sparkling engagement ring, I dressed for church in a black velveteen dress with white trim. The sanctuary, which held three hundred people, was filled almost to capacity. Delores and I were playing hymns when ushers brought three teenage boys to seats in the front. I noticed that one of them in particular, although skinny, was quite handsome.
His name was Jerry Falwell.
The Man Behind the Media Image
O'Charley's had begun to fill with the evening crowd and I stopped eating my soup long enough to say hello as friends and acquaintances passed by. Still watching my face, Jerry leaned against the padded booth, looking for all the world like he, too, was remembering the first time he saw me back in 1952.
Our waitress brought hot rolls baked a deep golden brown just the way I liked them. As I buttered my bread, I paused to study his face. The thing that still amazed me after all these years was how many of the media portrayals had painted a bizarre public persona of Jerry that most of the world believed to be true. Some said he was a hatemonger, stern, humorless, rigid, and uncompromising. I smiled just thinking about it. All you had to do was look at the laugh lines etched in his face to know at least part of that perception was wrong.
If I was the polar opposite of Jerry, he was the polar opposite of his public persona.
The Falwell family traced its roots in Virginia to the early 1600s, and those roots were anything but straitlaced and puritanical. Jerry's great-great grandfather, Hezekiah Carey Falwell, and his brother John arrived in Lynchburg in 1850. In 1914, Jerry's grandmother, Martha Catherine Bell Falwell, died from a crippling disease. The moment Martha drew her last breath, Jerry's grandfather turned his back on God.
Their son Carey grew up to be an avowed agnostic. In 1910, he courted Helen Beasley, driving a smart black horse-drawn buggy. They married August 7, 1918; Carey was twenty-two and Helen was twenty.
Helen was one of the only signs of spiritual life on Jerry's family tree. She'd grown up one of sixteen children raised in a devout Baptist home in the small town of Hollywood, Virginia. Her family didn't have much money, but every Sunday morning all eighteen of them worshipped at the Hollywood Baptist Church. Helen, who stood five feet eight inches tall, wore her waist-length auburn hair braided and wrapped in a bun. In addition to the apron she always wore in the kitchen, Helen rose every morning with a smile that never left her face.
Helen was a quiet woman with incredible faith in God. In the eighty-two years of her life, no one ever saw her angry. Even the discipline she meted out to her young children was offered in love. Her unfailing faith and unflagging good humor were two traits she passed down to Jerry.
Carey and Helen lived on a farm on Rustburg Road. The twostory white house was home for them and their five children. Their oldest daughter, Virginia, was born in 1917. Their second daughter, Rosha, was born in 1921. Their first son, Lewis, was born in 1924. Rosha died of a ruptured appendix when she was only ten. Two years later, on August 11, 1933, Helen gave birth to twin sons, Jerry and Gene.
The Money Myth
Our waitress at O'Charley's, still awash with amazement over the scholarship Jerry had offered her, hovered at our table for a moment to see if there was anything else we needed. Jerry still hadn't touched his food, nor had he taken his eyes off me except when speaking to someone else.
How many people in America would be as stunned as our waitress at Jerry's generosity? Probably the majority, because part of the public's misconception about Jerry had to do with money. After the PTL scandal in the eighties, many people believed that all televangelists were motivated by money. That wasn't true. Jerry's weakness with money was not a tendency to hoard it, but to give it all away. At one time Liberty University was in financial trouble, in part because Jerry had given so many full scholarships to young people he wanted to help that there weren't enough students paying tuition.
Money was nothing more than a tool for Jerry, largely because it had been nothing more than a tool for his father, Carey. Though Carey was an uneducated man, he had an uncanny ability to create wealth. He was a visionary who could look at the world around him, see what services would be required, and offer them. He owned bus lines, real estate, stocks and bonds, and gas stations across sixteen counties. He distributed oil and gas for Standard, Shell, Texaco, and Quaker Oil. He bought land, rental property, restaurants, and an inn. One of his more infamous roles in Lynchburg was buying and selling bootleg liquor. In 1935, he built the Merry Garden Dance Hall and Dining Room, which overlooked Lynchburg. That is by no means a complete list of his business ventures.
Enjoying the fruits of his labors, Carey rode to work in a chauffeur-driven car and had at least six men working on the farm at all times. He hired help for Helen in the kitchen. Jerry and Gene had a full-time nanny, a black man named David Brown, whom they loved. While Carey enjoyed making money, money never owned him. He used his wealth to make his family more comfortable and to help those in need. As often as not he let homeless people or those down on their luck live in the rental property he owned and the houses that dotted his property.
He used to leave piles of cash on the table, and when Jerry found out that one of his friends was from a poor family, Carey let the child help himself to the money. Because money was always plentiful, it meant very little to Jerry. He never suffered from lack. Because his own father had provided for him so well, when Jerry became a Christian he never doubted that his heavenly Father would do the same.
Live Bait for Sale
Of course, Jerry coupled his faith in God's goodness with an equal measure of hard work. He learned his work ethic when he was young and it did not change as he matured.
Carey was the one who taught him. He understood his sons' mischievous streak and decided early on that the best way to keep them out of trouble was to keep them busy. When Jerry and Gene were eleven, Carey came up with a business idea for them. First, he took the boys to large creeks and taught them how to seine for minnows and use a net to catch them. Then he taught them how to divide the catch into various sizes and showed the boys how to transport their catch to the little creek that ran in front of their house to await fishermen. Finally, he helped them make a sign: Live Minnows for Bait.
Fishermen often called ahead and placed their orders, and the twins took turns filling them each night. Around two in the morning the fishermen would pull up out front and honk. Either Gene or Jerry would hustle down and exchange bait for money. Often in the wee hours of the morning, the boys would look up and see Carey watching from his upstairs bedroom window, a wide smile on his face.
At first, Carey sent a car and driver with Gene and Jerry to seine for minnows, but in time he just lent them a truck and sent them on their way. He taught them to drive while they were in elementary school, and by age twelve they were racing around the farm on their own motorbikes. When they turned thirteen, Carey took them to the armory in town and got them their driver's licenses (he actually lied, saying they were fifteen). From April through October for the next several years, Gene and Jerry sold live bait, making $150 to $200 a week an enormous amount of money for kids in the 1940s.
The Honest Truth
Not only did Jerry's generosity defy the popular misconceptions about televangelists, he broke the mold in other ways too. Some of Jerry's critics assumed that any preacher who held up a high moral standard in public must be hiding private sin. They accused him of being hypocritical and dishonest. He was neither.
Honest to a fault, when angry protestors at Harvard University asked Jerry if he was a racist, he replied, "I once was." The ugly stain of racism was woven into the fabric of everyday life in the South and, like most southerners, Jerry had to wrestle to get free of it. He refused to pretend that racism had never reared its ugly head in his life.
The honesty that marked him as a man had its roots in the farmhouse on Rustburg Road. There Jerry's mother and father managed somehow to create an atmosphere of love and acceptance that made him secure enough to tell the truth even when he knew he would pay a price for it.
In spite of the family's challenges, theirs was a happy home filled with laughter. Gene and Jerry spent carefree days playing tag, digging forts, and climbing apple trees. They fed chickens and hogs, chopped firewood, and looked forward to the end of Carey's workday, when he would spend time with them while Helen and their older sister, Virginia, made dinner. Carey got them a little cart with harnesses that allowed goats to pull them around the farm. For pets they had ponies, horses, and goats.
The Truth Will Set You Free
When Gene and Jerry went to first grade together at Mountain View Elementary School, the character (and mischief) that had been instilled in them during those early years began to emerge. After one year, Jerry was advanced to third grade, skipping second. Jerry always said it was because the school principal didn't think any teacher should have to endure both Falwell twins in the same class.
Jerry's third-grade teacher, Ida Clair Garbee, soon found it necessary to give him a well-deserved spanking. Years later, when asked why she paddled Jerry, she laughed. "Because he was a mischievous little buzzard! But one thing I liked about Jerry Falwell: he always told the truth. If he did something wrong, he admitted it. If Jerry said he didn't do something, he didn't do it." That kind of personal honesty was a trait that marked Jerry's life.
Apparently that honesty continued to impress Mrs. Garbee's family as her niece, Rebecca, whom Jerry called Old Grey Fox and her husband, Gordon, later became charter members of Thomas Road Baptist Church, and are still active members today. Gordon is the church's oldest living original deacon.
A Merry Heart
Just as Jerry's honesty endured and grew throughout his life, so did his love of laughter and good-hearted mischief. Jerry inherited from his father not only his visionary abilities but also Carey's talent and appreciation for practical jokes.
That became evident when Jerry was still a youngster. Once when his friend William was scheduled to visit, Jerry asked his father to think of a joke to pull on him. When William walked into the warm farmhouse, smelling the perpetual aromas of delicious food that Helen prepared, the Falwell boys launched their prank. William followed the mouthwatering scent into the kitchen, whereupon Carey shouted, "Don't move!"
To both William's and Jerry's stunned surprise, Carey whipped out a gun, and shot a hole in the floor just inches from William's feet. Eyes the size of dinner plates, William stood frozen with fear as Carey blew the smoke from the barrel of his gun. "I've been trying to get that fly all day."
William never came back.
During Jerry's years at Brookville High School, he may have set a world record for the number of practical jokes played by one student. On one occasion, he locked his gym teacher in the storage area and pinned his pants to the bulletin board. Another time Jerry arrived at math class only to discover that his teacher was giving them a test that day. He announced that he wasn't in the mood for a test, locked the teacher in her closet, and dismissed class.
One of his more famous escapades involved a teacher named Mrs. Cox. Mrs. Cox kept a stash of cookies in the drawer of her desk. While the class copied questions from the blackboard, she slipped one hand into the drawer for a cookie. Looking down, she covered her mouth with her hand and chewed, feeling certain that no one knew what she was doing.
The truth was that the whole class watched, mesmerized by the delectable morsels. Finally, Jerry decided to get even. He brought a live rat to school in a burlap bag. Before class, he put the rat in the drawer with the cookies.
"Now, I want you to turn in your books to page number...," Mrs. Cox said as she inched the drawer open.
Without warning, the rat sprang from the drawer and landed in her lap. A look of horror crossed Mrs. Cox's face as she leapt from her chair, screamed, and fell into a dead faint.
The Wall Gang
During those years, Lynchburg youth separated themselves into neighborhood gangs. Although most of the rivalry took place on the playing field during sports season, at other times the gangs found different ways to keep busy. Jerry was a member of the Fairview Heights gang, a group of up to forty neighborhood kids who hung out on a low cement wall across the street from the Pickeral Café. Nicknamed the Wall Gang, they controlled who crossed the nearby bridge.
Because Jerry was the only member of the Wall Gang with a car he drove a 1934 Plymouth he became the leader of the pack. Somehow they got their hands on a mannequin, which they dressed and smeared with animal blood. On dark nights they left the bloody mannequin in the middle of the street. From their hiding place, they would watch horrified drivers turn the corner and hit the mannequin, believing it to be a human.
Inevitably, such pranks backfire on the pranksters themselves, and Jerry's case was no exception. In fact, Jerry would have given the valedictorian speech for his class if one of his pranks hadn't come home to roost.
During his junior and senior years, Jerry was captain of the football team. He discovered that the father of one of the boys on the team had donated the safe that housed the meal tickets for the cafeteria. Jerry talked the boy into finding out the combination. For two years the whole football team ate free on the tickets that Jerry distributed to them.
His senior year, someone finally noticed the discrepancy between the tickets sold and the money collected. For the first time, Jerry faced serious consequences for one of his pranks. His mother paid back the money for his lunch tickets, but the principal said, "Jerry, you will not give the valedictorian address."
Jerry smiled and acted cavalier, but inside he ached with humiliation. He'd worked hard to earn the role of valedictorian and was crushed to have lost the opportunity. He was an excellent athlete. He'd played baseball, basketball, and football. He was captain of the football team, class president, and a reporter for and laterthe editor of the school newspaper, The Brookville Bee. He graduated from high school at the age of sixteen, but he did not give his valedictorian address.
Thirty years later the school had mercy on him. He was asked to come back to the high school and give his speech at last. His topic for that speech: the consequences of one's actions.
The God of Second Chances
Maybe experiences like that were part of the reason Jerry offered so much mercy and forgiveness to everyone over the years. He identified with secretaries who made mistakes, rebellious students who broke the rules, and adults caught in the snares of sin. He'd once been a young man who turned his back on the Lord and broke the rules. He believed in a God of second and third and fourth chances.
Maybe Jerry never gave up on anyone because his mother, the faithful Helen Falwell, never gave up on him.
During his childhood, Helen took Jerry and his brother Gene with her to the Franklin Street Baptist Church Sunday after Sunday, despite the fact that as soon as possible they darted out the back door and ran down the street to their uncle Matthew Ferguson's house. Matthew, a nonbeliever, watched for the boys and had the door open for them when they arrived. While Helen thought they were in Sunday school, they were actually eating sweet rolls, drinking orange juice, and reading the cartoons in the Sunday paper.
By the time he was a teenager, Jerry stopped going to church altogether, and Carey refused to support Helen's efforts to get him there. However, Helen prayed and the Holy Spirit gave her great wisdom. Every Sunday morning when Jerry wanted nothing more than to sleep in, she made sure the aroma of his favorite foods filled the house. In addition, she tuned the radio to the Old Fashioned Revival Hour and turned it up loud enough that he couldn't sleep. Week after week, he heard Rudy Atwood playing the piano and Dr. Charles Fuller preaching over the airwaves.
Jerry never lost the awareness that without his mother's prayers his life would have had a far different outcome. Because neither his mother nor God ever gave up on him, he never gave up on other people.
The Turning Point
He never hated people, either. Hatemonger was the ugliest term Jerry's enemies ever pinned on him. Jerry never hated anyone or anything in his life, except sin and Satan. He had the ability to hate a particular sin but love the sinner. For instance, he never minced words about what he thought about pornography. He sued Larry Flynt and Hustler magazine for dragging his deceased mother into their filthy innuendos. Even though they battled all the way to the Supreme Court, Jerry nevertheless liked Larry Flynt. Those two men different in almost every way were friends.
Jerry Falwell and Ted Kennedy were on opposite ends of every political issue, but in the media they were labeled the Odd Couple. The oddity was that the two men liked and respected one another.
Jerry loved people. He collected lifelong friends. And once his enemies met him, they joined the ranks. Truth be told, Jerry's circle of friends had been expanding since he was a kid. His mother learned to accommodate their growing number early on.
Gene and Jerry's bedroom had a door that opened onto the covered porch that circled the front of the house. Helen never knew how many boys would slip into their bedroom at night, nor did she care. Each morning before breakfast she peeked into the boys' room for a head count and then prepared enough breakfast for everyone.
It was Jerry's love for people that would drive him and motivate his entire Christian life. It was the reason why as a young pastor he knocked on one hundred doors a day, six days a week, and didn't care how many times those doors were slammed in his face. It is the reason he accepted every invitation to go on television and present Jesus, even if it meant being ridiculed. It's the reason he was willing to look like a fool for the sake of the gospel.
This love came to Jerry through his father. Two years before Jerry and Gene were born, Carey's younger brother met with tragedy. Garland, a happy and kind young man, had gotten caught up in a lifestyle of drugs and alcohol that kept him in and out of trouble with the law. Garland's older brothers had tried to protect him from himself. They bailed him out of jail and shielded him from the police as much as possible.
But on December 28, 1931, the police were once more after Garland. Paranoid from both the substances he abused and from trying to stay one step ahead of the law, Garland became convinced that Carey had reported him to the police. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but Garland had a gun and was in no mood to talk. He tried to shoot Carey, who escaped and ran for his life.
Garland, unwilling to stop his pursuit, went after him. The drama ended when Garland cornered Carey in the office of the restaurant belonging to their brother Warren. Somebody was going to die that day, and had Carey not grabbed a .38 Remington, wheeled around, and fired, it would have been him.
The police ruled the shooting self-defense and no charges were filed. Carey, however, judged himself guilty. He loved his younger brother and mourned his death for the rest of his life. After the shooting, he started his own downward spiral of drinking that would end in his premature death.
Carey's friends say that when he got drunk late at night he often talked about and wept over his brother's death. One night, as several of his friends sat drinking around the kitchen table, Carey, tears streaming down his face, said, "If you ever have to kill someone, just kill yourself instead."
In a way, that's what Carey Falwell did. Never able to overcome the guilt, Carey drank himself into an early grave.
The Power of Prayer
Carey's wife, Helen, was a wise woman. She tried on numerous occasions to tell her husband about how a black heart could be made white again, but Carey would stop her. "I don't know about that," he said. "I just don't know."
Because she understood the grief that drove his drinking, Helen never scolded her husband or said anything unkind to him. She held him, loved him, and helped him as best she could. And, most important, she prayed for him every day of his life.
With each passing year, Carey's drinking took a greater toll on his body, and although Gene and Jerry didn't understand it at the time, their father was dying of cirrhosis of the liver. Carey's cousin Virginia McKenna was the only person who wasn't afraid to talk to him about his drinking and his soul.
"Stop this, Carey, and go to church!" she begged. But he refused to listen. By the time Jerry and Gene were fifteen, Carey was on his deathbed. In September 1948, Virginia met one of Carey's old friends, Frank Buford, in the grocery store.
"Carey's awful sick, Frank," she said. "Why don't you go see him?"
"I'll do that, Virginia."
"And Frank, please say something to Carey about his soul."
True to his word, Frank went to visit. "Carey, do you remember telling me one time that if there was ever anything I needed all I had to do was ask?"
"As you can see, I'm laid up in this bed, Frank. But if there's anything I can do for you, I'll do it."
"There is, Carey. I want you to join the church."
"I'll do it," Carey announced. "Just bring the man. "
Frank knew Carey was referring to Andrew Ponton, pastor of Jehovah Jireh Presbyterian Church. Frank left the Falwell house and drove to talk to the old minister, who agreed to go visit Carey the following morning. Pastor Ponton was so frail that Frank almost had to carry him into Carey's bedroom.
That morning, with Andrew Ponton and Frank Buford as witnesses, Carey Falwell confessed all his sins, repented before God, and invited Jesus to be the Lord of his life. In a stroke of divine love, his heart was washed clean by the blood of the lamb Jesus who was slain for the sins of the world.
For the next two weeks, until his death, Carey Falwell was a transformed man. Joy radiated from his eyes even as his body failed him. The guilt was gone and his demeanor changed. He was no longer demanding, but thankful to God and to his family.
On October 10, 1948, Carey died a peaceful man. As Jerry sobbed in his pillow, he had no way of knowing the profound effect his father's life and death would have on him in the coming years. As soon as Jerry experienced his own transformation as a Christian, he understood that his father had suffered torment all those years for only one reason: no one was willing to brave his rejection and tell him the good news that would have set him free.
The Intersection of Jesus, Jerry, and Me
Is it as good as you remembered?" Jerry asked.
For a moment I thought he meant our life together, but he nodded at my soup.
"Oh my, yes," I assured him.
It was all good: O'Charley's, the soup, our life together...all of it. But surely Jerry knew that, as he'd known so many things over the years not just about the past but about the future, as well.
Even before Jerry had a flicker of interest in spiritual things, it seemed the Lord had given him glimpses of His plan and purpose for his life. God had, as the Bible says, put eternity in his heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11). That was proved beyond a doubt one particular afternoon when Jerry was a teenager scrambling up the slopes of Candler's Mountain as fall colors shifted from green to red and gold. That unforgettable afternoon, Jerry sensed his destiny reaching out to him.
Jerry and Gene were together that day. The two were not identical twins. As they matured, Gene was the huskier of the two and Jerry remained rail thin. They differed in other ways, too. Gene loved to hunt. He taught himself how to kill and skin an animal. Jerry enjoyed hiking through the mountains, but he couldn't bring himself to kill anything. Gene had an amazing aptitude for anything mechanical, a gift that Jerry missed altogether. Yet for all their differences they had a bond that only twins enjoy, a silent knowing that one is part of the other, a connection so deep it did not require words.
Jerry and Gene often spent long summer days climbing through the maple, birch, sweet gum, elm, and dogwood trees on Candler's Mountain. But on that particular day, looking out over Old Baldy, something came over Jerry. A kind of knowing settled over him like a warm blanket on a snowy night. Something about the mountain drew Jerry, compelling him to look at it much the way Moses must have once looked at a burning bush.
"Someday I'm going to own that mountain," Jerry said with awe. "I don't know what I'm going to do with it, but I'll own it."
Jerry didn't even know God, yet the Lord had stamped His plan for Jerry's life so deep inside him that it was drawing him to his destiny. Jerry's prediction came true. Years later he did buy it. Today it's called Liberty Mountain and is part of the 5,000 sprawling acres that house Liberty University.
A New Day
Following his graduation from high school, Jerry enrolled at Lynchburg College after receiving a math scholarship. He was smart and had a photographic memory. He excelled in math and physics and could do anything he wanted with his life. In spite of his escapades Jerry was very shy, like his mother. When planning his career, he looked at his options based on one thing: he didn't want any career that required public speaking. Not that such speaking would be necessary. He was considered the greatest mathematical mind to have attended Lynchburg College. His gift was numbers, not words.
Since his glimpses into the future had been incomplete, Jerry had no way of knowing that his plans did not fit with God's plan. He had no idea then that God even had a plan. Nor did he know that his mother, Helen, and his aunt, Virginia, had made him the focus of their prayers.
January 20, 1952, began like any other Sunday morning. Jerry woke to the smell of hotcakes, molasses, and bacon. He knew it was his mother's way of getting him downstairs to hear the Old Fashioned Revival Hour. The volume was turned so high that from his bed he heard the choir sing "Heavenly Sunshine." He didn't want to listen to Dr. Fuller preach, but the food drew him downstairs. For the first time, as Dr. Fuller preached, Jerry felt a lump form in his throat. He was excited, yet weepy and edgy. God's presence filled every molecule of the kitchen, where Helen had spent years crying out to God for her son.
Still resisting the Holy Spirit, Jerry refused to go to church with his mother. Instead, he drove to the Pickeral Café, where he sat alone. Later, he wandered across the street to join the Wall Gang. That evening, in the middle of their conversation, Jerry blurted the last question he ever imagined asking.
"Does anybody know a church in Lynchburg that preaches what Dr. Fuller preaches on the radio?"
"Yeah," Otis Wright said, "a church over on Park Avenue. It's kind of a Holy Roller-type church, but they have good music and pretty girls."
"So why don't we go?" Jerry asked.
Jim Moon and Otis Wright drove with Jerry to Park Avenue Baptist Church that night.
This was my church, you know. I was there as one of the pianists for the service. The sanctuary was almost full, and the boys were ushered to the front row.
Jim Moon pointed at me as I played my heart out on the piano. "I think I'll ask her for a date."
"Then I'll ask that one," Jerry said, pointing at Delores, who was playing the other piano.
God had other plans about that, too.
That night, Jerry and Jim knelt at the altar and gave their hearts to Jesus.
Neither of us knew that our lives were going to collide in a cosmic explosion that would hurl us into our destiny. Copyright © 2008 by Macel Falwell