Southern Baptists will move forward with plans for an evangelistic and church-planting initiative in Chicago next year, Paige Patterson, president of the denomination, responded to the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago in a November 29 letter.

The council, whose members include leaders from the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago and 39 other Protestant, Eastern Orthodox and Jewish institutions, sent a letter to Patterson November 27 asserting that "hate crimes" might result from a "Strategic Focus Cities" initiative in Chicago next year by the SBC's North American Mission Board, the Chicago Metro Baptist Association and Southern Baptist volunteers from across the country.

At the outset of the letter, the Chicago council says it "urgently requests that the Southern Baptist Convention modify plans for sending 100,000 volunteers to seek converts in Chicago during the coming year." At the letter's conclusion, the council asks Baptists "to enter into discussion with us and reconsider your plans regarding this matter."

Among the points made by Patterson in his letter of response:

"During the lifetime of Jesus and throughout the history of the early church, religious leaders often opposed the witness of Jesus and His followers, but the common people heard them gladly. The people of Chicago will with characteristic friendship and hospitality do precisely the same."

"When Southern Baptists come to Chicago, we will come as men and women of peace, committed as always to absolute religious liberty for every individual. We will oppose all human violence as unworthy of the Prince of Peace. We will raise the standard of freedom from all religious coercion and intimidation of any kind. We will, indeed, attempt to provide for those in physical need, but we will also point people to the crucified and risen Lord Jesus who said, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no man comes to the Father except through me' (John 14:6)."

"If there is violence or 'hate crimes,' such will not be perpetrated by Southern Baptists or in any way engendered by our compassionate message. To the contrary, we are much more likely to be the targets of such attacks.

"Furthermore," Patterson added in his response to the Chicago religious leaders, "letters like the one that you wrote to the press, under the guise of writing to me, are more likely the stuff from which hate crimes emerge." (The Chicago council's letter was released to the news media the day it was dated, while the copy to Patterson apparently was simply placed in the mail. As of November 29, Patterson's office at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., where he serves as president, had not received the letter, leaving him to respond to the letter only as reported in the news media.)

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"In light of 'letters' communicated through the press, it is tempting to suspect that it is not so much violence that you fear as it is the positive response of precious souls to the invitation of Christ to salvation and forgiveness," Patterson suggested in his letter.

"You appear to desire religious liberty for Bible-believing evangelicals as long as they agree not to exercise that freedom," Patterson continued. "It is but one small step from alleging that the bearing of witness for Jesus results in 'hate crimes' to the allegation that such witness is a 'hate crime.' When the sad day arrives when that last small step is introduced, America will have forfeited that sacred conviction of liberty of conscience that motivated the founders of this nation!"

Meanwhile, the North American Mission Board released a statement November 29 also addressing the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago's letter.

"Some Chicago religious leaders apparently misunderstand the design and intent of Southern Baptists' city outreach programs," the agency's statement noted.

Jim Queen, executive director of the 200-church Chicago Metropolitan Baptist Association, was quoted in the NAMB statement as saying, "We are sharing Jesus' message, not a Southern Baptist message. Our desire is to demonstrate that Christians love and care for the city and people of Chicago.

"In a pluralist society where religious freedom is valued, I don't think anyone who understands our efforts would criticize our desire to talk about the hope we have found in Jesus Christ," Queen said. "Our message is one of love, not hate, and we join people of faith and good will in Chicago in condemning all violence targeted at any faith group."

NAMB's president, Robert E. Reccord, said, "It is wrong to characterize the evangelistic efforts of the Southern Baptist Convention as singling out particular groups, such as Jews or Hindus. Our purpose is life transformation through Jesus Christ, not proselytizing for a denomination."

The Chicago leaders' letter, a copy of which Baptist Press received November 30 from a source other than the Chicago council, which has no telephone listing in the city, had stated, "We are particularly disturbed that the two groups who appear to be among your primary targets, Muslims and Jews, have during the past six months been victims of faith-based terrorist violence in Chicago." Articles in the Associated Press and Chicago Tribune 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."

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Reccord said, "It is our belief as Southern Baptists—in fact it is the historic Christian confession—that everyone is separated from God by sin and that only faith in Jesus Christ can bridge that gulf. We believe it is our biblical responsibility to share this good news with all people in a loving, non-compulsive way and leave the results in God's hands and their own conscience."

The NAMB statement noted that Chicago's Southern Baptist churches, which are largely non-white—50 percent African American, 12 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Korean, 4 percent multi-ethnic and 13 percent white—had invited Southern Baptist churches from around the country to assist next year in conducting service and evangelism projects and beginning new churches.

The Chicago emphasis is part of Southern Baptists' Strategic Focus Cities initiative which will concentrate on two North American cities yearly, beginning with Chicago and Phoenix in 2000.

"As Christians we are under two mandates," said Phil Roberts, vice president of NAMB's city-oriented efforts. "We must fulfill both the Great Commandment to love others as ourselves, and the Great Commission to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with all people. We're looking forward to doing both in the great metropolitan areas of the United States and Canada, including Chicago."

The Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, in their letter, said, "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. This would assuredly not be your intent, but it could be a disastrous consequence."

The religious leaders cited a NAMB promotional video which calls for "an army of believers to converge on Chicago," stating that it "evokes images of a crusade," although the 100,000-volunteer goal is one set by Chicago Baptists, not one promoted in the NAMB video.

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"[The volunteers'] presence, however well intentioned it might be, could disrupt the pattern of peaceful inter-faith relations in our community," the council wrote, "and unwittingly abet the designs of those who seek to provoke hate crimes by fomenting faith based prejudice."

The council's letter also stated, "We recognize that the right to evangelize is protected by First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech. Moreover, we appreciate that seeking converts is a tenet for Southern Baptists as it is for other Christian Churches, as well as for people of other faiths and religions."

The letter is signed by the council's executive director, Paul H. Rutgers, listing the address as 1143 S. Plymouth Court, Unit 507, Chicago, IL 60605.

Charles Lyons, pastor of Chicago's Armitage Baptist Church, said in an interview with Baptist Press that Rabbi Ira Youdovin, executive director of the Chicago Board of Rabbis and identified by the Chicago Tribune as one of the letter's principal authors, is an acquaintance.

"And I believe he means well," Lyons said. "However, to use language like 'poison' and 'hate crimes' in conjunction with the coming of [Southern Baptist volunteer] missionaries is ludicrous, shocking, hysterical and inflammatory. It would seem that he is functioning by the politically correct definition of tolerance, which means, 'You be bland, I'll be bland and we'll all be bland together. I'll be tolerant of you as long as you sit down and shut up.'

"The [Strategic Focus Cities] activity being discussed for this summer is nothing different from what evangelicals of all stripes have been involved in all around the world for the last few centuries. Lighten up, Rabbi Ira," Lyons said.

Patterson, in his letter to the council, noted displeasure with the religious leaders releasing the letter to the media before he was afforded an opportunity to receive it.

"Letters released to the media prior to delivery to their intended recipients can never be considered as serious attempts to engender either cooperation or understanding," Patterson wrote. "In many ways, such letters are like anonymous letters. Like unsigned letters, the purpose is to intimidate rather than to negotiate and to achieve the advantage of a preemptive strike, banking on the supposition that the press will not give equal space, or hopefully provide no space at all, for a formal response.

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"Please be advised that all such unworthy attempts will fail to intimidate Southern Baptists from fulfilling the task assigned by Jesus in the Great Commission to ferry the life-transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the world, of which Chicago remains a vital part," Patterson wrote.

Martin King contributed to this article. Dwayne Hastings & James A. Smith Sr. contributed to Baptist Press's earlier article on the Chicago religious leaders' letter.

Related Elsewhere

See or earlier coverage of the Southern Baptist conflict with the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, "Southern Baptists Counter Warning that Evangelism Effort Will Breed Hate Crimes | Chicago evangelistic outreach 'not targeting groups,' leaders assure" (Nov. 30, 1999).