(Below: UK actor and comedian Dave Thompson plays Tinky Winky on the Teletubbies set near Stratford-on-Avon, England, in 1996. Photo courtesy of Dave Thompson.)

This morning ReligionWriter asked Michael Lewis Mayfield-Brown, a 17-year-old student and video-gamer, what he knew of televangelist Jerry Fallwell, who died yesterday at age 73.

“I just know he said Tinky Winky was gay,” answered Mayfield-Brown, who was born the year after Falwell’s Moral Majority was dismantled.

As reporter Hanna Rosin writes today in the Washington Post, Falwell hails from a bygone era of conservative Christian activism. How relevant, then, is Falwell’s legacy to a new generation? According to Mayfield-Brown, at least, Falwell’s criticism of the purple Teletubbies’ character may be his most notable public act.

Wrote Falwell in his 1999 “parents alert:”

Further evidence that the creators of the series intend for Tinky Winky to be a gay role model have surfaced. He is purple – the gay-pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle – the gay-pride symbol.

To learn more about Tinky Winky, ReligionWriter called up UK comedian, actor and writer Dave Thompson, the man who first played Tinky Winky on the show, which features four round creatures “who love each other very much” and is now popular in Iran and

Indonesia, according to Thompson.

In the edited transcript below, Thompson describes his own interpretation of the character and how Falwell’s 1999 “alert” about Tinky Winky helped propel the fictional children’s character to cult fame.

ReligionWriter: Artistically speaking, what kind of character was Tinky Winky?

Dave Thompson: The show was for children from zero to five, so we were told to make contact with that part of us that was still under five.

RW: Why does Tinky Winky carry a handbag?

Thompson: All of the Teletubbies have a “favorite toy.” This is based on a concept from psychological research called the “transitional object.” Very young children often have a little teddy bear, or doll, or blanket, which they associate with the familiarity and security of their mother. It’s a stepping stone between the mother and the outside world.

Each Teletubbie has a transitional object.

Po had the scooter, LaLa had the ball – which was actually an inflatable balloon – Dipsy had the hat, and Tinky Winky had the handbag.

RW: Did it ever cross your mind, when you were playing Tinky Winky, “I have this triangle on my head, I’m purple, maybe I’m supposed to be gay?”

Thompson: I didn’t know about purple being a gay color, or about the triangle being a gay symbol. I am straight and married myself.

(Photo: According to Dave Thompson, seen here taking a break on the Teletubbies set, the show is now very popular in Iran and Indonesia. Photo courtesy of Dave Thompson)

Some people said Tinky Winky was light on his feet. But if you’ve ever seen Charlie Chaplain’s films, you’ll know he’s very graceful and light on his feet. Light and graceful is funny, clumsy and heavy is not. Because Teletubbies are essentially clowns, and I have experience of doing that sort of physical comedy, I always made a point of making Tinky Winky graceful and light on his feet. Teletubbies are supposed to be funny, to make children laugh.

RW: When Jerry Falwell wrote that Tinky Winky was obviously gay, what was your reaction?

Thompson: Teletubbies are presexual beings, and the children who watch the show are innocent and just enjoying their childhood. Sex is not something they are consciously aware of. For an adult to impose adult sexuality on children’s cuddly toys is stealing the childhood from the kids who are enjoying the show.

RW: Did Falwell’s comments strike a chord in

England at the time?

Thompson: Yes, they did. Tinky Winky is a huge gay icon. When they sell the cuddly toys, a lot of gay people buy them.

RW: Did Tinky Winky become a gay icon because of what Falwell said?

Thompson: His comments helped the process along. It was in the news over here when he denounced Tinky Winky as gay, but the idea was already there.

When Teletubbies was released in the

UK, it was on early in the morning, so children could watch it while their parents got breakfast or got ready for work. But in those early morning hours, people were also coming back from rave clubs, and taking ecstasy or other hallucinogenic drugs. They would come home, sit down to chill out, turn the tele on and see the Teletubbies. The show was like a simple innocent place where there was no aggression, which is what tiny kids need, but also what people who’ve been out all night in a night club like. So it became a big phenomenon in the student and drug culture, and off the back of that it went into the gay culture.

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(This Q&A first appeared in May’s Wharton Leadership Digest and is reprinted here with permission.)

Growing up in Houston’s impoverished Fifth Ward, Kirbyjon Caldwell learned everything he needed to know about business at his father’s clothing store - earning a degree at the

Wharton School also helped. But shortly after launching his own business career,

said he was “called” to religious leadership. Today he is the pastor of the 15,000-member Windsor Village United Methodist Church in

Houston, Texas, where he has pioneered innovative economic development projects. In March this year, Beliefnet.com, a leading religion website, named Caldwell - who offered the prayer at the 2001 presidential inauguration - one of the country’s ten most influential Black Spiritual Leaders.
This month, the ReligionWriter caught up with Caldwell, a featured speaker at the June 7 Wharton Leadership Conference, to talk about his passion for combining faith and finance.Question: Tell us about your own story. You graduated from Wharton, and today you are a religious leader. We would have expected you to go into investment banking instead. Kirbyjon Caldwell: I expected to do that myself (laughs.) I have always had a keen if not passionate interest in transforming the economic infrastructure of communities. My dad owned a men’s clothing store, so I had entrepreneurial blood running in my veins since birth. When I graduated from high school, I wanted to make a difference, to help people in

, to do good while doing well. So I focused on economics as an undergraduate at

Carleton College and later was accepted at Wharton.
After I graduated, I went to work for First Boston on Wall Street, then moved to

to work for a regional investment banking house as a fixed income institutional salesmen. I’d been there three months when the “calling” occurred.
Q: Can you tell us about that moment of “calling?”

: The most intelligent statement I could make is to say it was an experience that does not readily lend itself to a verbal description. To put it in religious terms, it was a moment when I became eclipsed by God’s will. All I knew was I was supposed to stop selling bonds and start pastoring a church. It’s been suggested there are at least two great moments in one’s life: one when you’re born, and the second when you discover why you’re born. I believe everyone is called to do something, and most of us, obviously, are not called into full-time ministry - for that I say thank the Lord, because that would be pretty boring. But we’re called to be more than a mom or a dad or a spouse. I think we’re called to leave an indelible imprint in this phenom called life. I encourage everyone to ask him or herself: “Why am I here?” There’s a reason why you were born and there’s a reason why you’re still here. I don’t think you should go crazy trying to figure it out, but you should be alert and alive to and, hopefully, aligned with that purpose. Q: After being ordained as a minister, you became the pastor of a church with only 25 members. Did that feel like a come-down for you, a person with two graduate degrees, suddenly in charge of only 25 people?

: Only 12 of whom came to church on Sundays (laughs.) I was assigned there by the [United Methodist] Church, and I believed God wanted met to be there, so I focused on that and went to work. Now we have over 15,000 members, and we take up more money in one worship service than we did that whole first year, and we have six or seven worship services a week. Q: How do you explain that success?

: In spiritual terms, we had five keys: a winsome worship service, multiple magnetic ministries, a powerful prayer ministry, enthused and involved lay people and an entrepreneurial methodology. The sixth thing, which may not be meaningful for a business audience, but which is very relevant in today’s culture, is having a clear Christology [understanding and declaration of the person of Jesus Christ.]

In business terms, we really understood our target population. Two, we delivered our product as excitingly as possible. We did all our work with volunteers and only a small paid staff;  as you know, that can be challenging. So the third thing we did right was have an informed and enthused HR team.

But here’s something else interesting. We did not care about the competition. We didn’t care what the other churches were doing; we just focused on what we were doing. Having said that, the real competition is not the church around the corner, it’s culture, it’s whatever keeps folks from going to church. We had a real kick-butt attitude, and in this case the butt was apathy, arrogance, ignorance and the status quo. And of course the financial pieces - managing cash flow, maximizing assets — we were doing that as well. Q: How did your M.B.A. help you lead your church?

Caldwell: My Wharton experience clearly contributed to my willingness to pursue “success” on a large scale. And of course when it came time for us to secure debt and raise capital, it helped to be comfortable with the nomenclature. Really, though, it was my experience working in my dad’s clothing store as a kid in

that has proved invaluable, in terms of interpersonal skills and the just down-right work ethic. I think it was the Houston Fifth Ward experience, combined with the Wharton experience, that helped me have the right attitude.
Q: Your latest book has the title Entrepreneurial Faith.What do you mean by that phrase?

: Interestingly, when the word entrepreneur was originally coined, it had nothing to do with money. It was about identifying and galvanizing resources, particularly people, to pursue a common goal. Who better fit that description than Jesus Christ himself? Of course the more commonplace definition of entrepreneurship has to do with attracting economic and financial resources to make a vision happen. Beneath that is the notion of having a mission and deploying every resource you can get your hands on to make that a reality; at the end of the day, that’s what a real entrepreneur does. Q: Some people might resist the idea of mixing business and religion. Is it a contradiction to mix faith and finance?

: Not at all, in my view. Faith and finance were never intended to get a divorce. Rather, God intended them to be in a healthy relationship. The Bible has more verses on money and commerce than it does on faith, prayer, heaven and hell combined. Go figure. What has happened is, theologians and lay persons have misinterpreted and misapplied that teaching on faith and finance. God has blessed us to be a blessing to others, and that has an economic meaning too. Q: Why was economic development important to you and your church? Why not just focus on getting more church members? Caldwell: The area of

I grew up in - the Fifth Ward — was underserved, to say the least. Since very early on in life, I’ve had a desire to make a difference in the community. So when I went into the ministry, making a difference economically was part of my agenda. It’s just a passion I have.
Point Two Three Four, 234-acre is a multi-use community we are developing in

. It consists of Corinthian Point, a YMCA, a public school, an independent living facility, a community park, and an 8.5 acre commercial development, currently anchored by Walgreen’s and CVS. Understand that in this neighborhood, there were no drug stores. Corinthian Point is the largest residential subdivision ever developed by a non-profit entity. There are 464 homes, and 80 percent of the homes are low- to moderate-income housing, though you wouldn’t know that by looking at them;“ they’re very nice. We are also developing a 451,000 square foot community center, which would include a charter school, a NASA program and the sanctuary, the family life center; it will literally be a smorgasbord of spiritual and social services.
This community is literally being transformed. The houses are already up, people are already living in them. From a spiritual standpoint, it’s unscriptural not to own land. God wants us to own land. From a social standpoint, statistics are clear: when people own land, education levels go up, crime comes down and life is made by better. There are positive spill-over effects.

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