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I first met Jerry Falwell when I was a Sophomore at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. The year was 1972. I can honestly say, hearing and meeting Dr. Falwell was a turning point in my life.
I was so impressed with Jerry's vision, courage, and compassion that the very next year, 1973, I transferred from the Michigan school to Dr. Jerry's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. The school was then called Lynchburg Baptist College.
Back in those days, there was no Liberty Mountain, no sprawling campus, no NCAA sports program, etc. It was a small school, meeting in make-shift classrooms spread out just about everywhere. We met in the facilities at Thomas Road Baptist Church, in refurbished buildings in downtown Lynchburg, and in facilities at the Treasure Island youth camp.
When I graduated from the Bible Institute division of Liberty in 1975, I was part of the first complete graduation class in the school's history. As such, Jerry seemed to take particular delight in us. In fact, I can honestly say that Jerry Falwell and I formed a friendship while I was a student that lasted until the day of his sudden and (to us) untimely death this week.
I can still vividly remember the hour-long conversation I had with Jerry Falwell in his church office as I struggled with the decision to move to Pensacola, Florida after graduation and start a brand new church. His counsel was invaluable.
My wife and I did indeed move to Pensacola following graduation and plant the Crossroad Baptist Church in 1975 with a total of six people attending that first service. Four of the six were my family, by the way. That was thirty-two years ago next month. And we are still here, except there are a few more of us now.
In 1979, Dr. Falwell asked me to be the Executive Director of the newly-formed Florida Moral Majority, a position which I was very pleased to accept.
For the next decade, I worked side-by-side with Jerry Falwell. More than once, I flew with him in his private jet to conferences and gatherings and shared the platform with him in several of those meetings. I was also privileged to travel with Jerry overseas, including to Israel and the Bahamas.
In addition, Dr. Falwell spoke at our church in Pensacola on at least four occasions. Furthermore, Jerry invited me and my wife (along with many others) to join him in Washington, D.C., to meet (and dine with) President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush. In fact, President Reagan even wrote a personal letter of commendation to me and our church. I'm certain this was done at Jerry's behest.
Jerry was always good to me. When our church was first formed, he asked a successful businessman to send a generous offering to our struggling work. The man did, and I still remember what an encouragement that was to our young hearts.
While we were in Israel, Jerry asked me to appear on his Old Time Gospel Hour television broadcast. He also carried several of my columns in his National Liberty Journal newspaper.
Because of my association with Jerry Falwell, I was privileged to meet many of America's prominent Christian ministers and political leaders, along with numerous conservative activists. In fact, many enduring friendships came out of those meetings.
Dr. Falwell was absolutely fearless. And I saw him up close and personal in some of the most hostile environments that one can imagine. He never backed down or folded. He knew what he believed and spoke from his heart.
Jerry Falwell was a man's man. He was tough as nails, but was also tender and compassionate. Only God knows how many struggling preachers and churches Jerry reached out to. He was generous to a fault. I remember him saying that Macel (his wife) would never let him carry cash, because, if he had it, he would always give it away. I believe it.
Yes, Jerry Falwell changed America. His influence upon our country cannot be underestimated and will be felt for decades to come. His church and schools have generated tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of "young champions for Christ" and an equal number of Christian patriots. I hope I am one of them.
In many respects, Dr. Falwell's legacy is forever linked to Ronald Reagan. I believe it is safe to say that, in may ways, Jerry Falwell made Ronald Reagan who he was and Ronald Reagan made Jerry Falwell who he was. They were inseparable friends, which is a credit to both men.
However, the most enduring memory I have of Jerry Falwell is that of pastor. I can remember, like it was yesterday, the feeling Connie and I had when we attended services at Thomas Road. There was always a revival spirit present in the church. I cannot recall a Lord's Day when people were not saved and baptized.
It was at Thomas Road Baptist Church that my wife and I learned to live by faith and trust God. It was the teaching ministry of Dr. Jerry Falwell and Dr. Harold Willmington that gave me a thirst and love for the Bible. While at Thomas Road for those two-plus years, I caught Jerry's vision; I felt his heart. There is not time to recount the lessons learned, the prayers answered, and the spirit captured while sitting at the feet of Dr. Jerry Falwell.
During the past few years, Dr. Jerry and I had distinct differences in our approach to politics. He remained a stalwart supporter of President George W. Bush and the Republican Party in general. I have become an Independent who is as critical of this administration and the Republican leadership as I am of the Democrats. Jerry saw a substantial difference between the two major parties; I don't. In fact, my last communication with Jerry took place just a few weeks ago as Jerry and I discussed our differing views and conclusions regarding the Bush administration and future elections.
However, Jerry Falwell and I shared the same love for Christ and the same allegiance to the Word of God. We believed the same principles and doctrines. We only differed on how to apply those principles. And I certainly will not allow those differences to interfere with my respect and admiration for this dear man.
America has lost a seasoned patriot. Thomas Road Baptist Church has lost a faithful and dedicated pastor. Liberty University has lost a visionary chancellor. The church of Christ collectively has lost a dynamic preacher of the Gospel. The Falwell family has lost a loving husband and father. And thousands of people such as me have lost a hero, mentor and friend.
No matter what his enemies say, America is a better place because of Jerry Falwell. And those of us who were privileged to personally know him will never forget him.