By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Most vocal this morning are Nelson and her girlfriend of five years. "Back in the Jews...in the Holocaust, when they were doing stuff with the Nazis, they actually...you know, the pink triangle? They put those on gay people," says the blonde Thuillier, employing the oft-used tactic of mentioning Hitler's regime in order to stop any debate dead in its tracks.
Later, a Baptist approaches Nelson. The media, with cameras and notepads in hand, swarm around him. "I hope you don't get the wrong impression. We don't hate people like y'all," says Lindy Reed, a lanky, tanned man of 39 who leads a 400-member church in Kansas City, Missouri. "There's another lifestyle for you." Nelson simply nods. The hordes of media, for their part, soon lose interest. From across the street, they see that Mel White and an entourage of 50 supporters have finally arrived. They rush toward him.
Under the hot sun, White, a tall, balding man wearing a minister's collar, kneels in prayer in a half circle with the others, who wear white T-shirts that read, "We Are Thy Neighbor." For several moments, the only audible sounds are of nearby traffic and the clicking of cameras and the harried steps of a frenzied media.
And this is a show just for them. White didn't apply with the county for a permit to demonstrate today. He's here to get arrested in front of the cameras.
Soulforce begins their demonstration. "We shall overcome," sing the mostly middle-aged group of about 50 men and women. Joining in this anthem is Jim Lawson, a black activist who marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. "It's an issue of nondiscrimination and justice," he says.
Minutes later they stand, and with White, many field media questions. "You need to hear this," White says. "If we're wrong, if we should have struggled longer against our sexual orientation, if we should have stayed in therapy the rest of our lives...when the Final Judgment comes, it's what Christ does for us that redeems us. It's not what we do. And we're trusting, just like the Southern Baptists are trusting, that His grace will cover our sins too.
"Jesus might say to me, 'Mel, I wish you'd struggled longer, but if he says that, he's going to also say, 'But you spent the rest of your life telling people that God loves them. Well done, good and faithful servant.'
"So if I'm wrong, it's OK," concludes White matter-of-factly.
He turns his attention to his group. "Groups of four," he says, directing about 25 of those who will cross the street with him toward the convention center. The lines form.
He blows kisses to those who will stay behind. (For those arrested, bail will cost up to $500.) One woman gives White a hug. Then, minutes later, he holds his hands up, pressing them together in supplication as if he were the Pope. After embracing his partner, Gary Nixon, the march begins, almost in a shuffle, so as not to trip over the throngs of photographers trying to get a good shot.
"Nice and strong," orders White, who holds a small sign, "Father Forgive Them." And soon, he and the others pass by the street, the traffic, and the vegetarian Jesus who's still smiling in the heat. They arrive at the center of the courtyard.
In this orchestrated drama unfolding before the media, a uniformed officer comes down the path from the convention center and reads from a small piece of paper telling the group to disperse its unlawful assembly. He then waves to nearby colleagues to take White and his group into custody.
One by one, members of Soulforce wait their turn, as those ahead of them extend their hands to be fitted with plastic handcuffs by police.
Now, it's White's turn, and amid the cameras, he raises his hands to the officers on both sides of him. Escorted by them, White walks down to the paddy wagon. There inside sit about 25 of his Soulforce, and, as fate would have it, PETA's chicken man and smiling Jesus. The doors slam shut.
"Anyone catch the chicken man's name?" asks a sweaty Reuters reporter.
"I'm always disappointed that the media ignores us," says Thomas, leaving the room. As he walks away, a sign dangles from his hand. "Gays and Lesbians Can Change," it reads. "It's Possible."
But what about those erotic thoughts to which Thomas admits? There's a difference between thinking and acting on them, he says. When I ask later if his calling himself celibate means he hasn't masturbated in the last eight years, he hedges his answer. Masturbation has been an issue "here and there," he says, but he's been completely abstinent in the past "couple of years." The conversation soon ends.