The Rev. Jerry Falwell is returning to Bangor next month.
He is not coming to take the reins of a troubled church as he did in 1986. The Virginia-based preacher and former president of Moral Majority is not visiting to give encouragement to a local Christian radio station as he did in 1995. Nor does he plan to talk about his recent trouble with Teletubbies.
This time, the founder of the Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., is coming to preach to the state’s youth at the Maine Christian Teen Conference ’99 scheduled for April 23 and 24 at the Bangor Civic Center. In a phone interview last week, Falwell said he wants to prepare Maine’s young people “to become the church of tomorrow” and to challenge them “to oppose and stand against peer pressure.”
In 1986, Falwell helped steer Bangor Baptist Church out of the emotional and financial crisis caused by the Rev. Herman “Buddy” Frankland’s admission that he had committed adultery with a member of his congregation. Nine years later, Falwell kicked off a fund-raiser during a snowstorm for WHCF-FM, Bangor Baptist’s radio station.
Falwell was featured in the nation’s editorial cartoons last month when his organization criticized Tinky Winky, a character in the “Teletubbies” TV show, for advocating a gay lifestyle to children.
Falwell will stop in Maine on April 24 on his way to Pontiac, Mich., where he will speak to an estimated 80,000 youth at Teen Mania, a national gathering. The Maine conference is being organized by the Rev. Stephen Hall, pastor of Levant Village Baptist Church and a former Falwell employee. He expects nearly 4,000 young people to attend the event, which will feature Christian rock bands Big Tent Revival and Newsong, as well as radio talk show host Dawson McCallister, Craig Darling, a former football player for the Minnesota Vikings, and Charles T. Buck, CEO of Buck Knives Inc.
While Hall is grateful for the media attention Falwell will bring to the event, the Levant pastor wants the conference to offer Maine teen-agers something he believes they desperately need — hope.
Without it, Hall is afraid the number of teens who commit suicide each year will continue to rise. The pastor knows firsthand how devastating a suicide can be to a community, a church, a school, a family.
Hall had been pastor of the 130-year-old church in Levant for only a year when he was called to assist the Fire Department with a trauma incident — the suicide of Hermon High School junior Ben Jewell in October 1996. Jewell was one of eight teen suicides in the area that year. There were 12 in central Maine the next year, claims Hall. Just when the pastor thought the suicide prevention efforts he and others had made in the area were taking hold, two 16-year-olds deliberately ran off the road in March 1998 at Deadman’s Curve in Levant. Although the double fatality first was ruled an accident, a suicide note was found in the car later.
“I wanted to do something really proactive because I got tired of coming in after the trauma already had occurred,” he says. “Suicides are demoralizing, especially teen suicides. They leave kids with a sense of hopelessness, but it is glorified hopelessness. We want to restore their hope.
“Kids see suicide as an act of courage, but it’s not an act of courage. It’s cowardice. It’s being afraid of living. I want teens to see that being afraid of life is sad and not something they should want to emulate.”
In addition to asking young people to commit their lives to Jesus Christ and his teachings, Hall hopes the conference, with a budget of $38,000, will raise funds to build a teen center behind his church. The concrete slab for the building already has been poured, and NBA-sanctioned basketball nets stand at either end. Hall says the town’s young people often play basketball there. The $68,000 center will be named in Jewell’s memory.
“Christ is the answer to all life changes and challenges, including crime, abuse and suicide,” evangelizes Hall. “I want teens to know that it’s OK to be a believer, that it’s great to be a believer. It takes courage to be a believer.”
For more information on the Maine Christian Teen Convention ’99, call Hall at 884-7857, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.