The day Jerry Falwell died, my parents were visiting. CNN broadcast the story, and I got a cell-phone text message and a telephone call within 30 seconds (apparently) of the broadcast.
And I had to tell my father, “Jerry Falwell is dead.”
Let’s back up a bit. Jerry Falwell probably had dozens of friends. My father did not. Jerry Falwell was one of them.
Last year, my father lost two of his best friends. One was a Chinese pastor who was probably the best friend my father had had in his adult life. The other was a man with whom he had been close enough at one time to name his son after him. (Which led to something I resent, though not a lot: they knew the man as “Jeff”, so they named me “Jeff” and not “Jeffrey” or “Geoffrey” or “Jefferson” or “Jeffkingoftheworld”. I would have preferred “Jefferson”, but I wasn’t asked.) So Jerry was, for my father, yet another friend who had died.
Now, I have my own thoughts (as would my sister) about Jerry Falwell. And at one point I thought I should write a real obituary here on my blog. But I decided to wait in order to sort my thoughts. And, thoughts sorted, what I really want to say here is: Jerry Falwell was my father’s friend.
You see, I could write (as could my sister) about life at the college he founded. In fact, I could—and maybe still will—write an entire book on the subject. I could, better than most, criticize and ridicule the man, if that were my goal (though I don’t think I would ever have such a goal). I could get into the politics of the Moral Majority and homophobia and women-should-be-in-the-kitchen-ism. I could remember all of the sermons I had to endure with the cliched phrases like, “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” I could, in short, remember the man for his shortcomings. But I won’t.
For me, Jerry Falwell’s death was something else. I got a text message and a phone call, and I had to tell my father that another one of his friends was dead.
Criticize Falwell all you want. Hate him, call him misogynist and homophobic and racist (which he was, at least at one time in his past). But he was, as in fact all of us are, a human being, and some people loved him, and not because they saw him on TV and sent him $50 every month.
He was a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a friend to some. And Lord knows, when I die, I want to be remembered and missed for what good things I might have been—not for my political views, but for my friendship.
Luckily for me, none of my friends are nationally known, and none of them are as divisive as Falwell. Nor am I. So when one of my friends die, or when I die, we will be mourned for who we are and not for who the world has estimated us to be. This is a good position to be in, I think.
But Jerry Falwell was in the limelight—big, charismatic, controversial. And CNN and all the major networks carried the story of his death, probably with commentary about what it meant and how things might or might not change in America without him on the scene.
The story they did not carry was that of a man sitting at a kitchen table somewhere in Germany, playing a board game with his wife, son, and grandson, being told that yet another of his friends had died.
It’s a story it was up to me to tell. So I have told it.