NEW YORK, Feb. 21 (JTA) — The Southern Baptist Convention is backing away from its initial announcement that it would bring 100,000 Christians to Chicago next summer to evangelize in the streets.
Now Convention officials estimate that 5,000 to 10,000 Southern Baptist volunteer missionaries will come from other locations, and that there will be some 70,000 to 80,000 local people working on the Windy City blitz.
At least one Jewish official says that even those numbers overestimate how many people can be rallied locally. “The community isn’t that big,” said Rabbi Ira Youdovin, executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. The area, with a population of about 6.5 million people, includes roughly 260,000 Jews.
A public fight between Southern Baptist and Jewish leaders over the entire missionary campaign, first announced by the Southern Baptist Convention last November, has prompted an unexpected development — the beginnings of a working interfaith relationship between Chicago rabbis and the chief Southern Baptist official there, who is now talking about joining the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s Strategic Cities Initiative is targeting Chicago and Phoenix this year, Boston and Las Vegas in 2001, and Philadelphia and Seattle in 2002.
But on July 8, which falls on a Saturday, it will be a missionary full-court press throughout Chicagoland.
On that day, pairs and threesomes of Christians will “prayerwalk,” strolling down every street praying for the residents of the neighborhood, said the Rev. Phil Miglioratti, the Southern Baptist Convention’s strategic focus cities coordinator for Chicago.
Others will distribute “free cold water in hot parks, offer free car washes in the name of the Lord and go into businesses offering to clean windows and restrooms,” Miglioratti said.
Southern Baptist Convention officials promised in interviews that Jews would not be targeted for the missionizing.
“We’re not targeting Jewish neighborhoods. We’re targeting the whole city of Chicago,” said Roberts from Southern Baptist Convention headquarters. “If we go to a door and someone says, ‘We’re Jewish and don’t want to hear anything,’ then we’re moving on,” said Roberts.
“In all honesty, we have not discussed sending people with Jewish backgrounds to Jewish areas,” Miglioratti said, of the Hebrew-Christians from area “Messianic” congregations they expect to work with. “We really don’t have a Jewish strategy.”
At least one local Jewish official is glad that few Jews are likely to be home that day.
“There could hardly be a better day to pick to have less success encountering Jews,” said Jay Tcath, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago. “Hopefully many will be in synagogues, others on vacation and the youth will be in summer camp.”
But another local Jewish leader warned them to stay away from a predominantly Jewish area on July 8.
“It would be reckless for the Baptists to come into West Rogers Park with big numbers on that date,” said the Chicago Board of Rabbis’ Youdovin.
It will be almost precisely a year after Benjamin Smith shot and wounded six Jews on their way home from synagogue on Friday evening, July 3. The next day, Smith shot and killed a black man in Skokie, and, on Sunday morning, shot and killed a Korean American coming out of church in Indiana. He then turned his gun on himself, after being overtaken by police.
“To come through on Shabbat with large numbers of Christians on that anniversary could set off some very very bad vibrations. It could achieve the kind of agitation that’s the last thing anybody wants to achieve,” Youdovin said.
Reaction to the overall Southern Baptist campaign has been deeply divided among Jews.
The Southern Baptist Convention — this country’s largest Protestant denomination, with approximately 16 million members — has had a dicey relationship with the Jewish community going back at least two decades. In 1980 Bailey Smith, then the denomination’s president, said that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of the Jews.”
Announcement of the new conversion campaign last November came on the heels of a firestorm of controversy over the distribution of Southern Baptist prayer guides, each of which targeted a different religious minority — Jewish, Hindu and Muslim — and detailed ways to pray for their conversion to Christianity.
The guides were distributed right before each group’s holiest annual holidays.
Last September the denomination also supported a conference called “To the Jew First in the New Millennium: A Conference on Jewish Evangelism,” in New York City.
That, on top of the resolution passed three years ago promoting evangelism specifically among Jews, laid explosive groundwork for the more recent campaign announced by the Baptists.
Now that the initial contretemps has blown over, some are downplaying the threat that the Southern Baptist campaign poses.
“Sixteen million people aren’t going to converge, take out their swords, and try and convert Jews,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. “The reaction on the part of some Jews is creating an environment conducive to that interpretation.”
Eckstein is president of the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians & Jews, which raises millions of dollars each year from evangelical Christians for the resettlement of Jews from the former Soviet Union in Israel and other Jewish causes. But after two decades of working with Southern Baptist leadership, he officially broke from them when they made public their plans for targeted missionizing.
Still, he said, in terms of being converted during the Chicago campaign, “Jews don’t have anything to worry about on the concrete side. But on the principle side, it shows just how far there is to go in the relationship.”
Others, however, disagree with that perspective.
“If you go into a community and smother them with so many missionaries, they’re bound to seize on people who are very vulnerable and who will fall into their hands,” said Philip Abramowitz, director of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council’s Task Force on Missionaries and Cults.
According to Tcath of the Chicago JCRC, “There is a tendency among some activists in the community to belittle the threat, who say we shouldn’t overreact, but we know there are thousands of Jewish individuals who have left the fold, who have gone into Christianity, and we can’t let that pass without an effort to prevent future loss of precious Jews.”
He initiated a local task force representing about 20 local Jewish agencies and communal organizations to address the Southern Baptist issue.
It is bringing representatives of the organization Jews for Judaism to lead workshops for Jewish educators, youth workers, rabbis and the Chicago Jewish public in late March or early April, Tcath said.
It is also creating a couple of different pamphlets geared toward Russian immigrants and young people detailing “the arguments they cite, their tricks they use in shaping the discussion down their path. We look to list the types of issues they will raise and what appropriate responses are,” Tcath said.
One may be: “Save yourself the effort and don’t knock my faith or on my door.”