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- The Virginian-Pilot
© May 23, 2007
LYNCHBURG - In a memorial service that packed 7,000 people into the church he founded with 35 members in 1956, the Rev. Jerry Falwell was celebrated Tuesday as a visionary who brought evangelical values into the mainstream.
"Jerry Falwell was a giant of a man," proclaimed evangelist Franklin Graham. "He was a man of faith, a prophet of our generation. I'm going to miss him."
Mourners filled Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church and several thousand more watched the funeral via live video at the A.L. Williams Stadium and the arena at Liberty University, which shares a campus with the church.
The 73-year-old Falwell died last week, nearly 30 years after he injected conservative Christians into electoral politics and made their social causes a national focus of debate.
He grew Thomas Road into a congregation of more than 20,000 and saw Liberty University, which he founded in 1971, swell to more than 26,000 students. He also was host of the "Old-Time Gospel Hour" television ministry.
Hundreds of people began lining up outside Thomas Road Baptist Church hours before the doors opened for the 1 p.m. service. At the head of the line was Rena Lindevaldsen, a Liberty University law school teacher who said she arrived at 1:53 a.m. with a folding chair, snacks and a book.
"It was very important for me to be here in the funeral in the worship center and participate," said Lindevaldsen, who called the service a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Further down the line, Louise Murphy-Robinson said she drove seven hours from Binghamton, N.Y. to attend the funeral with her son, Cliff, a Liberty graduate student.
"We could have stayed home and watched it on Sky Angel" - a Christian channel - "but we came to show the world how much Jerry Falwell means to all of us," Murphy-Robinson said. "A lot of people cut up and ran him down, so it's important for us to be here."
Falwell's critics often excoriated him for publicly disparaging gays and lesbians, the American Civil Liberties Union and liberal causes.
But the only protesters present Tuesday were half a dozen members of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Westboro is known for holding virulent anti-gay protests around the country.
Falwell may be best remembered for founding the Moral Majority, which organized conservative Christians into an electoral force.
None of the Republican presidential candidates attended the funeral, but several prominent Virginia GOP politicians did: Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, Attorney General Bob McDonnell and former U.S. Sen. George Allen.
The White House sent Tim Goeglein, a presidential aide, with condolences from President Bush and the first lady. "On behalf of all of us in the Bush-Cheney White House, please know that we are holding you up in prayer," he said. "Jerry Falwell was a great friend of this administration."
Jeannie Falwell Savas, Falwell's daughter, spoke for the family from the pulpit her father held more than 50 years. Flanking her were her brothers, Jerry Falwell Jr., chancellor of Liberty, and Jonathan Falwell, executive pastor of the church. Falwell's wife, Macel, was also at the funeral.
Savas, who is a surgeon, called her father's death a surprise and said prayers conveyed from around the world had sustained her family over the past week.
"God's work will certainly continue without Dad," she said, nearly breaking into tears. "We're comforted to know we have a promise from God that we'll spend eternity with the man we all knew and loved."
Graham, named as a funeral speaker in instructions left by Falwell, said Falwell was a good friend and Christian.
"People have asked me, 'Franklin, do you agree with Jerry Falwell?' Every time he looked in the Bible I agreed with Jerry Falwell, and you know what? He opened the Bible a lot," Graham said. "I thank God for him."
The Rev. Jerry Vines, an old friend of Falwell and a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, reminisced in his sermon about Falwell's boyish sense of humor, devotion to his family and a strong faith.
" He said, 'I believe God has called me to confront the culture,' and did he ever confront it!" Vines said. "And the political landscape of America has been different since that day because he had a special touch for a special task."
At the end of the 90-minute service, pallbearers brought Falwell's casket to a waiting black hearse where Graham and Vines stood to one side. The Falwell family watched from the curb, Jerry Falwell Jr. with an arm around his mother and Jonathan Falwell with an arm around his sister.
The funeral procession left in several black limousines for a private burial on the university's grounds.
Jerry Falwell Jr. said Liberty University security personnel told the family Monday night that there had been a threat but that it had been resolved with an arrest.
Police said a student at the evangelical university was arrested after they found homemade bombs in his car. Although he planned to attend the funeral, authorities said, they do not think he planned to disrupt the event by using them. Campbell County authorities arrested the freshman Monday night on charges of manufacturing an explosive device after they found several homemade bombs in the trunk of his car, Maj. Steve Hutcherson said.
Mark David Uhl, 19, had told a family member that he had made explosive devices and that he planned to attend the funeral, Hutcherson said.
Lynchburg Sheriff Terry Gaddy described the five objects as "sort of like napalm" and about the size of soda cans.
Falwell's effect on evangelical politics was underscored at the service by the conservative Christian leaders who turned out to pay their respects.
They included religious broadcaster Pat Robertson; Ralph Reed, former leader of the Christian Coalition; Gary Bauer, a 2000 presidential candidate; Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice; Roy Moore, a former judge who lost his bid to post a Ten Commandments monument in the Alabama Supreme Court building; and Morris Chapman, president of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Falwell "led this nation at a very critical time in our history to see the value of morality and ethics, and he's to be honored," said Chapman, whose denomination has more than 16 million members.
Robertson, who arrived with his personal bodyguards, called Falwell a good friend and "a courageous spokesman" of values they both shared.
"He stepped on some toes and put his fingers in people's eyes," Robertson said. "He had thousands of friends and a large number of enemies; that's the way it is with anyone who is articulate and courageous."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
• Reach Steven G. Vegh at (757) 446-2417 or email@example.com.
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