CHICAGO (BP)—A number of Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leaders disagreed yesterday with an assertion by the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago that "hate crimes" might result from an SBC evangelistic outreach in Chicago next year.

"We're not going there with antagonism in our hearts. ... In fact, the contrary," said Herb Hollinger, the SBC Executive Committee's vice president for convention news, in an Associated Press story distributed nationally reporting on a November 27 letter from the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago to SBC President Paige Patterson.

In the letter, the Chicago religious leaders ask Southern Baptists to "enter into discussion with us and reconsider your plans" for an SBC "Strategic Focus Cities" evangelistic initiative in Chicago next year.

Hollinger told the AP, "We have a message that we think will bring encouragement and hope to people."

James M. Queen, executive director of the Chicago Metro Baptist Association, told Baptist Press that the Strategic Focus Cities emphasis for Chicago will demonstrate "acts of love," helping local Southern Baptist churches with block parties and other supporting activities.

"We are not targeting groups," Queen said. "We want to show love, show our faith. Everybody needs to hear the gospel."

Queen said Jesus Christ mandated sharing "our faith."

"We are going to love them, pray for them," Queen added, and in the process feed and clothe them. "We are going to be peaceful people and bless our city."

Richard Land, president of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said in a statement November 29 that the Chicago religious leaders' objections to the SBC evangelistic initiative "underscore the significant and serious problems with the whole hate crimes ethos."

"The objections raised by the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago should be profoundly disturbing to people who truly believe in the practice of our First Amendment free exercise of religious rights in America," Land said.

"People who commit crimes against persons and property should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," Land stated. "If a person murders someone, it shouldn't matter why they did it—society should condemn the crime in the strongest terms possible."

Land, however, continued: "To say that Southern Baptists should refrain from an evangelistic campaign because it might, as the council said, 'contribute to a climate conducive to hate crimes,' is not a very far step away from then claiming that the act of witnessing itself to those whom you believe need to be saved is a 'hate crime.'

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"I think it is instructive that those who criticize Southern Baptists' efforts to evangelize cities or groups always preface their criticism by acknowledging Southern Baptists' right to express our beliefs," Land observed. "It seems they affirm our right to express our beliefs as long as we agree not to do so. As soon as we seek to practice what we preach, they severely criticize our 'arrogance' and our 'presupposition' that non-Christians 'are outside God's plan of salvation,' as Chicago's United Methodist Bishop Joseph Sprague said in press reports.

"I grieve," Land said, "as I am sure John Wesley does from beyond the grave, that a Methodist minister would make such statements in response to fellow believers' attempts to heed the Great Commission commandment of Jesus our Savior, who it should be remembered did say, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me' (John 14:6)."

The council, representing the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and 39 other major Christian and Jewish institutions, said in their letter, "While we are confident that your volunteers would come with entirely peaceful intentions, a campaign of the nature and scope you envision could contribute to a climate conducive to hate crimes," as reported by the AP and the Chicago Tribune.

The council has no telephone listing in Chicago and Baptist Press was unable to obtain a copy of the letter November 29.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the letter acknowledges Southern Baptists' religious motivation and First Amendment rights. But it cites last July's shooting of six Jews in Chicago's West Rogers Park and the vandalism of a mosque in Villa Park in May as evidence of the vulnerability of people targeted because of their faith.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and a frequent defender of Baptist stances in such national media as "Larry King Live," also issued a statement November 29 concerning the council's letter.

"To link New Testament evangelism with hate crimes is cowardice posing as compassion," Mohler said. "This is political posturing, not a serious argument."

Mohler also stated, "It greatly saddens me to see so many supposedly Christian leaders who are determined to avoid evangelization at all costs.

"These Chicago leaders are prime examples of cultural accommodation—they seem to fear the gospel itself," Mohler said. "I can only wonder what the apostle Paul would think of church leaders so afraid of offending persons by seeking their conversion to Christ. Fortunately, Southern Baptists do not receive orders from Chicago's 'Council of Religious Leaders,' but from the New Testament and the words of our Lord Jesus Christ."

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The SBC's Strategic Focus Cities emphasis is a joint effort by the convention's North American Mission Board (NAMB) with Southern Baptists in key metropolitan areas in which Southern Baptist volunteers from across the country will participate in a wide variety of evangelism and church-starting projects in two major cities each year, beginning with Chicago and Phoenix in 2000.

Phil Roberts, vice president for NAMB's new strategic cities strategies group, has described the agency's commitment to key U.S. cities as central to the board's overall mission of reaching the United States and Canada with the gospel. Cities not only are home to 60 percent of the population and most of the ethnic and cultural diversity, but also are the centers of forces that drive the nation.

"In the next 20 years if we fail to reach our cities, then we will see America degenerate further, both morally and spiritually," Roberts said in a Baptist Press story in August. "And as a result of this effort Canada and the United States will either have been closer to being truly and fully evangelized or we will see our culture becoming increasingly pagan."

Land described the Strategic Focus Cities initiative as "a product of much prayer and long-term planning. The project is Southern Baptists' response to the Holy Spirit's leadership to be obedient to our Lord's Great Commission commandment to preach the gospel to the whole world, including the major metropolitan areas of our nation.

"It is a response to an increasing concern that Christianity is becoming far too suburbanized and that there needs to be a sustained evangelical effort in the central cities of our nation. It is not substantively all that different from any other strategic, sustained evangelistic campaign such as the 'crusades' conducted by the Billy Graham ministry," Land said.

The North American Mission Board, based in Alpharetta, Georgia., is the SBC's national agency responsible for assisting local churches in evangelism and church starting. Southern Baptists presently start 1,500 new churches a year across the United States and Canada.

NAMB has set a prayer goal of starting 60,000 churches in the next 22 years, more than doubling the 48,000 churches and missions that exist today and bringing the total to more than 100,000 churches by 2020.

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The Associated Press and Chicago Tribune articles made note of recent prayer guides on the Jewish and Hindu faiths issued by the SBC's International Mission Board and noted various Jewish and Hindu protests in response. The Chicago Tribune stated that the Chicago council's letter "takes the proselytism debate to a new level, by confronting the Baptists with a united, interreligious front that is heavy with Christian leaders such as Cardinal Francis George. Southern Baptists are not members of the council."

Reports on the Chicago religious leaders' letter also were carried on various radio and TV outlets across the country. On the November 28 Fox News Sunday telecast, commentator Tony Snow asked Jesse Jackson about the hate crimes assertion.

"I don't think it's a hate crime, but if the faith that they affirm is that we judge character by how we treat the least of these, the faith that they affirm is to come and feed the hungry and to clothe the naked and to educate all of our children and to break down the barriers that separate us, then that would be a good thing.

"If it's proselytizing and polarizing and divisive, that would be an ugly thing," Jackson continued. "But I think as we affirm the best in our faith, it's a good thing everywhere."

Copyright © 1999 Baptist Press

Related Elsewhere

See earlier coverage of this story in the Chicago Tribune and the Associated Press.