LYNCHBURG, Va. – The Rev. Jerry Falwell’s conservative politics have earned him both friends and enemies in a long, public career – but there’s no denying he’s been a successful pastor.

Joined by thousands of supporters, Falwell will mark the half-century anniversary of Thomas Road Baptist Church on Sunday with a daylong celebration that begins with a service in a new, 6,000-seat sanctuary.

The sanctuary is just a small part of a 1 million-square-foot complex for the Falwell empire’s administrative offices, Liberty University recreational facilities and classrooms and Liberty Christian Academy, which has students from preschool through high school.

Days before the opening ceremony, workmen hustled to install the raised choir loft, lay carpet around the dark gray upholstered seats, and put wall coverings over insulation.

Even unfinished, the setting bore no reminder of the church’s beginnings.

Fresh out of Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo., a 22-year-old Falwell returned to his hometown and started his church with 35 members in an old Donald Duck soda bottling plant.

“We scraped syrup off the floors and walls,” he said during a recent interview.

Falwell, whose countenance is jovial even when talking about serious subjects, built his congregation with knuckles and shoe leather. “I began knocking on 100 doors a day, six days a week,” he said. He would invite people to church, and leave them with his phone number in case they needed his help.

One year later, Thomas Road Church had 864 members; it has continued to grow dramatically. Today, the rolls number 24,000, with several hundred evangelists going door-to-door in central Virginia.

Falwell still believes in recycling old buildings, however. Everything but the church sanctuary has been converted from an 888,000-square-foot facility formerly used by Ericsson, a Swedish-based supplier of cellular phone network equipment. Parts of it are still being renovated.

Within a few weeks of starting the church, Falwell found a way to expand his reach quickly – first with a radio program, then a live Sunday night television show – the “Old Time Gospel Hour” – on the Lynchburg ABC affiliate. In 1956, the move was bold.

“Nobody else was doing it,” Falwell said. Today, the preacher has his own Liberty Channel as well as shows on other cable networks.

Falwell’s influence moved from strictly religious matters to politics in the 1970s, with the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling that established a woman’s right to an abortion. “Believing life begins at conception, I became very exercised over this,” he said.

The result was the founding of the Moral Majority in 1979, which Falwell used to mold the religious right into a political power. “He is the face of the so-called religious right in America,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and a sharp Falwell critic.

Falwell hit the road, traveling some 300,000 miles a year to campaign, a schedule that he kept for 10 years and now says he realizes was costly to the church and the university.

The congregation was behind him, though.

“They believed that his voice was an important voice, and if that meant sharing him with other people they were willing to do it,” said Mark DeMoss, his executive assistant from 1984 to ’91.

Falwell was able to travel extensively and still lead a congregation, DeMoss said, because he never stopped being a pastor.

“Even as busy as his schedule was, he still was visiting people in Lynchburg’s two hospitals several times a week,” he said, as well as performing weddings and conducting funerals for everyone who asked.

These days, slowed by health problems and a desire to focus on his ministry, Falwell has pulled back from politics somewhat.

While possible presidential contender Sen. John McCain was Liberty’s commencement speaker in May, and another potential GOP contender, Virginia Sen. George Allen, has been invited to speak at Sunday’s festivities, Falwell carries the weight of being a polarizing figure. Even among evangelicals who share his views, he is sometimes considered tactless in his public comments.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Falwell partly blamed the tragedy on groups that “tried to secularize America,” singling out pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays and the American Civil Liberties Union. “God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve,” Falwell said. He later apologized.

Falwell has taken steps to ensure the future stability of both the church and the university, DeMoss said. One son, Jerry Jr., is a lawyer who manages the finances, while Jonathan preaches at several of the five regular Sunday services.

Falwell said he views his church as the fulcrum of his ministry, but Liberty University will be his legacy.

“The university produces thousands of young men and women trained as Christian leaders,” he said.

Founded in 1971, Liberty now has 9,600 students on campus and another 15,000 in its distance learning program. A law school opened in 2004, and Falwell’s goal is to have 25,000 on the campus in 13 years.

“At 72, I have to make all my licks count,” he said.

The university began as an offshoot of Thomas Road but once it began to grow, the old church was too small to accommodate the students. The new church is on campus.

“This new church really represents bringing everything full circle,” DeMoss said.

On the Net:

Thomas Road Baptist Church:

Liberty University:

Falwell’s television channel:

AP-ES-06-28-06 1158EDT

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