I was 16, I believe. It was the summer of 1981, and I was a rising Junior in High School. I had been saved for not quite a year, and as a teenager, influenced by the pop culture of that time and the [already liberal] public education system, I thought I knew "TV Preachers" like Jerry Falwell.
I thought I understood issues like abortion, School prayer and the like. Still, as I was visiting my Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Kenneth's house, I was flipping through the 5 or 6 channels on the dial (no remotes for the Middle Class "regular folks" back then) to see what was on.
I came across the Reverend Jerry Falwell, preaching, according to the screen, at some church out in Dallas, Texas I believe. He stood at the podium, emphasizing his point, quoting his text, passionately calling for his large crowd of hearers to consider, to ponder the subject at hand.
I'm sure a smirk crossed my face. It was the kind of smirk a teenager gets when he [or she] already knows it all, and is looking forward to a good laugh.
I don't remember Dr. Falwell's subject, or the Scripture he was quoting. I DO remember that he was saying something about Jesus Christ, and that in Him God showed His love, and offered His salvation. Just then, the shadow of a man obscured the view of the camera, and he yelled something -- perhaps obscenities, perhaps protests -- I couldn't tell what. At the same moment, the intruder threw something at Falwell. Even I was shocked.
Falwell stepped back surprised as the object hit him, as I recall, in the left chest and shoulder. It was a pie. A cream pie. As security gaurds tackled the protester and led him away, Dr. Falwell stepped back up to the pulpit, removed his jacket, smiled, and said "that's okay folks. It needed to be cleaned anyway." To thunderous applause, Dr. Falwell continued on, preaching the Gospel without missing a beat.
I thought I had Falwell pegged. I thought this guy was the stereotypical, holier-than-thou preacher I heard about in my school, in the media, even in my church. But Falwell's reaction -- Christlike in attitude and disposition -- made an impression on me that I couldn't forget.
I started listening to Dr. Falwell. I started praying for Dr. Falwell. Soon, I was agreeing with Dr. Falwell. I became a member of Moral Majority and supported it for almost a decade. I listened to his "Old Time Gospel Hour." I grew to respect Jerry Falwell, and a minister, and as a man.
In January, 1985, at the Students For America national convention meeting during the second Reagan Inauguration, I had the pleasure of sitting at the head table for a banquet, with Dr. Falwell, and my Senator at the time, Jesse Helms. I had the opportunity to share the previous story with Dr. Falwell. I remember his smile, and what I perceived to be humility. His acknowledgement was a simple, "thank you." Someone later that evening -- I think it was Ralph Reed, who at that time was the National Chairman of SFA -- told me that Dr. Falwell had really been touched by my story. But I was the better for it.
Now, I didn't agree with him on every issue. Most of the time I got frustrated that he was too quick to apologize when he was right about something he commented on. Once in a while, I asked, "Dr. Falwell, did you have to talk about THAT?"
My respect for Dr. Falwell, however, never waned. He was one of the most stalwart evangelists I've ever known. I don't ever recall a time that he compromised the Gospel message even a little bit. And he always shared the love of Christ, even while telling the truth of God's Word about the critical issues of our day.
From that day, as a teenager and a young believer and American, I found a respect for Jerry Falwell that grew over the years -- and an appreciation for his prophetic and evangelistic zeal that has never wavered.
I'm profoundly glad that my respect and appreciation for Dr. Falwell -- like his soul, now present with His Lord -- will not end in his death, nor lessen in eternity.
J. Dale Weaver, M. Div.