Jerry Falwell in heaven: Surprise, surprise!By Stephanie Salter
TERRE HAUTE — Jerry Falwell stands in line, waiting to be admitted through what he used to think of as “the pearly gates” but now realizes is an indescribable threshold that simply — and profoundly — separates heaven from everything else.
Mostly, the line flows and Falwell must move briskly to keep up. Occasionally, though, the stream of former humanity comes to a complete halt. As he nears the head of the line Falwell can see that each delay is for a person being pulled from the line then led about 200 yards off to the left, too far for Falwell to view.
Heavenly Greeter: Brother Falwell! Hello, and congratulations on your journey. A swift attack at your desk. The dream of many.
Jerry Falwell: Praise Jesus! He rewarded his humble servant.
HG: Hmmm. Actually, that isn’t how it works, brother, as you will learn.
JF: You are beautiful to behold, Greeter, but I am so eager to cross over this threshold, I can’t delay another second. I’m just —
HG: Whoa, brother! You’re not cleared yet.
Falwell feels his whole being flush with an unpleasant warmth, a sensation he cannot remember experiencing during his mortal adulthood. He is embarrassed.
HG: Please step out of line, brother, and follow these two.
The Greeter’s open palm indicates two fairly short, compact women whom Falwell can’t place. Impossible though it is — people are neither clothed nor unclothed in this realm — one of the women seems to be wearing a wide-brimmed hat.
JF: Both of you, I feel I know you, but I don’t believe we ever met. Wait a minute! The hat. Bella Abzug! Oh, Lord. And you, oh, no. Betty Friedan! Feminists!!!
BA: Calm down, Brother Falwell. What are you afraid we’re going to do — kill you???
Abzug and Friedan erupt in such hearty laughter, they fall into one other, causing Abzug’s hat to slightly tilt.
BF: Or are you afraid we’ll rob you of your manhood? Take a look. It’s already gone. Passes away when we do, brother. Remember St. Paul? Neither male nor female?
JF: But you’re female.
BA: That’s only because you still see us that way. Why do you think you got pulled out of line? You’ve some remedial work to do, Brother Falwell. This way.
Flanking him, Abzug and Friedan link arms with Falwell and walk for what feels to him like miles. Their voices rise and fall as they talk or sometimes sing “Try A Little Tenderness,” Friedan doing a fair imitation of Otis Redding. Falwell hums along until Abzug segues into his very own words from Sept. 12, 2001:
BA: “I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”
BF: (patting Falwell’s hand affectionately) OK, dear boy, this is where we stop.
Falwell finds himself in the middle of an arena. Women and men, many African-American, rise all around him as if they were sitting in bleachers. He spots Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who walks slowly toward him then wraps him in an embrace.
MLK: Brother Falwell. You seem surprised to see me. Still thinking of me as a Communist and a threat to America? Still questioning my “sincerity and intentions” as a civil rights activist? You said all those things about me — in a sermon! — in 1965.
JF: Dr. King, I was young, raised in the South, I didn’t —
MLK: Yes, raised in the South. Who can forget your reaction to Brown vs. Board of Education in yet another sermon? “If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”
Falwell hangs his head. Still, King holds him in his arms.
MLK: You preached to your congregation that the “true Negro does not want integration,” and you told them black people eventually “will destroy our race.” When I led the march on Washington for civil rights, you said ministers should stay out of politics, but when it was your agenda, you said you’d been wrong about preachers and politics.
Falwell watches as two more people move out of the stands, a slim black woman and a white man wearing glasses and a bow tie. They place their arms over Falwell’s shoulders.
JF: Who are you?
The woman smiles and says, “Barbara Jordan,” and the man says, “Andrew Heiskell.”
BJ: I was a member of the United States Congress, remember? Andrew was the chairman of Time Inc. We helped Norman Lear found People for the American Way. The day after terrorists slammed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, you went on TV and told the nation we aided the attack. Even the White House felt compelled to call that “inappropriate.”
JF: I apologized a week later.
AH: Come on, brother. You said you were sorry then you made the same lunatic accusations in different words. Do you want me to read them? I’ve got the CNN transcript right here.
JF: Doggone journalists.
Falwell sees two men approach, one barely out of his teens. As the others have, they embrace him fondly. The younger man takes Falwell’s right hand. The older man actually holds Falwell’s face in both of his hands and looks him in the eyes.
JF: I don’t know you gentlemen, but I feel your love and compassion for me.
The older man says, “I’m Harvey Milk. This is Matthew Shepard. We were gay in mortality, and we were murdered for it.”
MS: They beat me, then hung me on a fence in Wyoming. Harvey was shot by one of his fellow San Francisco supervisors. You said we were evil. You blamed us for America’s problems. You called us “brute beasts.”
JF: But you’re here, in heaven!
HM: That’s right, Brother Falwell. All these other souls are here, too. They crossed over the threshold long ago.
Falwell looks at the packed arena. It rises as far as he can see.
JF: Who are all the rest?
MS: People you never knew but condemned. Women who had abortions, doctors who helped them. Folks who belonged to the ACLU. Couples who raised children and grandchildren by the Golden Rule but didn’t belong to a church. Each wants to meet you, to hug you and kiss you and tell you about their mortal selves.
Falwell’s eyes sweep the countless faces. His shoulders sag, but his heart feels oddly light. From out of the crowd, a tiny purple creature with a triangle on its head and a red bag over his little arm waddles up.
JF: Tinky Winky. The Teletubby I said might be a homo.
TW: Hi, Brother Falwell. We meet at last. I’m going to stay with you while you get to know all these people.
JF: Oh, my. Will it be weeks? Years? How long must I stay?
Tinky Winky reaches up and wraps his tiny purple mitt-hand around Falwell’s hand.
TW: As long as it takes, dear brother, as long as it takes.