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.'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

*

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.

"When I said at that sermon, 'I am gay, I am proud and God loves me without reservation,' I don't think some people realized how long it takes to get to that point."

White pulled into a long driveway, leading to the modern house and 17 acres of elm forest and grasslands he and Nixon bought at a bargain price in recession-hit Texas.

One of the two stray dogs they have taken in lumbered over to greet him, tail wagging. "There is a study out that says if a person knows someone who is gay, that person is less likely to be homophobic," White said. "Now all those guys on the religious right know at least one gay person.

"I'm not their ghost anymore."

*

In the high-ceilinged, sparely furnished living room, White flipped through picture albums while Nixon and a friend from the church cooked dinner in the kitchen.

He found a snapshot of his maternal grandmother, Noni. "She was what was known as a crying preacher," White said with a smile. "She would get so excited about what she was preaching, she would cry on the pulpit."

He grew up in Santa Cruz, where his father was on the City Council and served as mayor. The local Church of God became White's life early on. "I went to Sunday school at 9 o'clock, church at 11 and came back for fellowship at 6. There was evening service at 7 and choir practice at 9. Tuesday night was more choir practice. Wednesday night for Bible study. Thursday was youth fellowship.

"They opened the church doors and I was there."

White pointed to one picture of himself as a teen-ager, sitting among dozens of academic and Christian youth group awards.

"This is a young man dying and trying to overachieve so that God will love him."

By the time he graduated from Warner Pacific, a small Christian-oriented college in Portland, Ore., he had a local TV youth show and had started to make religious films. Upon graduation in 1962, he married his childhood sweetheart, Lyla. He later got a master's degree in divinity and doctorate in ministry from Fuller.

Early in his marriage, he realized that his teen-age sexual feelings for men were not going away. He told his wife and they decided to go on together while he fought against those feelings.

"We thought this was something that could be fixed and for 25 years I tried I everything I knew," he said. "But being gay is who I am. It's not something that could or should be fixed or changed."

In the meantime, their production company prospered and they traveled the world to make inspirational films. White discovered writing as a sideline to the film business in 1973 when a publisher asked him to put in book form a documentary, "In the Presence of My Enemies," White had made about a Vietnam prisoner of war.

"I already had transcripts of the interviews we had done, so I went to the beach in Laguna (Beach), took a room in a hotel and just wrote. Five days later I had a book."

Also in 1973 he became pastor of Pasadena Covenant, an evangelical church that had a membership of about 1,000. He was there until 1978.

"I had all these male students coming in from Fuller for counseling and I was falling in love with half of them," White said. "I had to leave. It was too much of a conflict, trying to deal with my sexuality and being a pastor."

He continued to write books, taking a room in Laguna Beach to do the final drafts. In the late 1970s, he first visited the gay bars there. Occasionally, he would pick up men or allow himself to be picked up.

In 1979, he went to see Hart, the Lake Elsinore psychologist, for counseling. By then, he had lost count of the number of psychologists he had seen. "Most of them worked in an evangelical context and told me I could get over being gay," he said. "I walked into her office and told her nothing was working.

"She said, 'That's because there is nothing wrong with you. Fall in love with a man and get over it.' "

Shortly thereafter, he did just that. White fell in love with a young lawyer in Chicago and a few months later he decided to end his marriage. Then, on the very day he was to leave and take up his new life in Chicago, a call came from a man he had long idolized but never met, except in crowds.

"It was Billy Graham," White said. "He knew of my writing and he wanted me to come to Acapulco, where he was staying, to write a book."

White took the flight to Mexico instead of Chicago. He and the lawyer remained friends until the lawyer died last year from AIDS, but they were never again lovers.

The Graham book, "Approaching Hoofbeats," opened the door to more ghostwriting jobs. "Just working with Graham can make your reputation, he is so respected," White said. He worked first for Robertson and then Falwell, among other prominent Christian and business leaders.

His best-known book in the secular world is "David," which he co-wrote in 1985 with Marie Rothenberg. It tells the true story of her son, who was horribly disfigured in a fire purposely set by his father. The book was later made into a television movie.

But as his writing career flourished, White became more and more despondent.

In 1980 he joined the prominent and progressive All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. "It's not an evangelical church," White said, "but many in the congregation are evangelicals who did not feel at home in fundamentalist communities and wanted a church involved in social action."

The rector there, George Regas, became an important figure in White's life. He urged White to come to terms with being gay. "He had grown up in that constrictive, conservative, fundamentalist environment that said to him being gay is sinful and that there is something ugly and unclean about it," said Regas, now on sabbatical in Cambridge, England.

"He was still in that world, and the conflict was growing."

Nine years ago at a Palm Sunday service at All Saints, White and Nixon met. They fell in love and this time White ended his marriage.

White said he stays in close contact with his children and his ex-wife, who now works at All Saints. The divorce was painful, but White says his ex-wife has remained steadfastly supportive. One of his most treasured photographs is of his ex-wife embracing Nixon at the marriage of the Whites' daughter.

He kept his new relationship quiet and pursued more ghostwriting work. While in Dallas to ghostwrite the autobiography of the leader of a prominent Southern Baptist church, White visited the the Metropolitan Community Church there.

Unlike most MCC groups, which meet in storefronts or other rented spaces, the Dallas church was planning a new, 1,000-seat, traditional-looking church building. White was impressed with the lively congregation. Its senior pastor, Michael Piazza, immediately set his sights on having White join the church's staff.

"He has gifts and skills that we need," Piazza said. "We have a motivated and enthusiastic congregation, but sometimes we are not so successful at communicating our message."

Late last year, White and Nixon decided to move to Dallas. Aware that his sexual orientation would become public knowledge, White wrote to the prominent religious figures with whom he had worked to tell them he is gay.

Falwell said he decided not to answer the letter. "The problem with Mel is that he does not think he needs help," he said. "Mel's problem is that he thinks what he is doing is right."

(A member of Graham's staff said Graham was out of the country and could not be reached for interviews. Robertson's press agent said the evangelist would not comment.)

White has made public statements critical of his former bosses. "These guys are not interested in biblical truth," he said in an interview. "They are only interested in proving, through their interpretations of the text, their own prejudice."

Falwell bristles at these statements, but said he refuses to enter into a dialogue with White.

"Mel, clearly, is now grandstanding," Falwell said. "He has to justify his new job. To do so he has to get a Billy Graham and a Pat Robertson and a Jerry Falwell to get into a word battle with him, and I'm not going to do that.

"Six months from now, his ability to attract attention will exist only if some of us give it to him."

*

On a recent Sunday morning in the new church, White gave a talk before Communion was offered.

As he came to the pulpit, it was apparent these matters were still on his mind. He told the congregation that just before the service, he caught a glimpse of a dog near the church.

"A stray dog with a leash torn off from somewhere, looking in the back door, hungrily, and then he disappeared," White said. "We sit, you and I, in this great place, having torn our leashes off from the old places. And come here, hopefully, looking and hoping that we will find something to relieve our hurts, our hunger.

"And lo and behold, we do it in the spirit of this moment, this event."

White held aloft the symbolic wafer and wine and looked out on his congregation.

"Jesus," he said, "be with us today."

The Rev. Mel White, Quoted

On denial

"We thought this was something that could be fixed and for 25 years I tried I everything I knew. But being gay is who I am. It's not something that could or should be fixed or changed."

On being out

"There is a study out that says if a person knows someone who is gay, that person is less likely to be homophobic. Now all those guys on the religious right know at least one gay person. I'm not their ghost anymore."

On Falwell and Graham

"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. Billy Graham was my hero from the time I was a little boy. I loved him. He's a great man."

On homophobia

"These guys are not interested in biblical truth. They are only interested in proving, through their interpretations of the text, their own prejudice."

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