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For week ended December 05, 1999 Posted 18 Dec 1999

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Southern Baptists' focus on LV concerns other religious groups

Summarized by Eric Bunker

Southern Baptists' focus on LV concerns other religious groups
Las Vegas NV Sun 1Dec99 D1
By Stacy J. Willis: Las Vegas Sun

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA -- Las Vegas is slated in the next two years to be one of four major city's targeted for the evangelistic zeal of the Southern Baptist Convention, similar to the attention focused upon Salt Lake City last year. Phoenix and Chicago are on the list for the year 2000, with Boston and Las Vegas for 2001.

The Nashville, Tennessee based Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., claiming nearly 16 million members and 40,000 churches. In Metro Las Vegas, there are 101 Southern Baptist Churches.

The Baptist "Strategic Focus" means that more than 1,000 Southern Baptist evangelists and $2.5 million will be sent to each of the targeted cities to spread the "be-a-Baptist" message. The Strategic Focus Initiative is a new plan aimed at spreading the gospel according the SBC in cities outside the southeast US, where it is the most prominent.

Along with other missionary activities, local Southern Baptists expect to devote their resources toward training local volunteers, distributing videos about Jesus, hosting block parties, sponsoring booths at sporting events, collecting and distributing food to the hungry and creating a counseling program for troubled Las Vegans. Planning is already under way on the 2001 campaign, which has been dubbed "Loving Las Vegas."

Last year President Hinckley and Salt Lake City officials openly welcomed them when the SBC held a convention there. These leaders asked church members and all Salt Lake City residents to be accommodating and kind. However, the group has not received such a warm welcome in other cities.

Last week, the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, an interfaith group of 39 religious leaders wrote a letter to the Southern Baptist Convention asking them to reconsider their decision to target their community.

The 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."

Their concerns are largely based in a controversy over the Southern Baptists' recent publication of prayer guides that suggest members of Jewish and Hindu faiths are somehow lacking in spiritual validity.

Rev. Russ Daines, a local Baptist leaded said, "It's misunderstanding and miscommunication. We simply want everyone to know about God's love, including Jews and Hindus and everyone else," said the Rev. Russ Daines. "All people have darkness in their hearts until they receive Jesus Christ."

Never the less, local Jews and Hindus are upset about the strength and self-righteous bent to the SBC proselytizing effort and are concerned that the Southern Baptists' focus on Las Vegas will disrupt an otherwise friendly interfaith community. They don't mind people sharing each other's beliefs, but do mind the SBC trying to increase their membership enrollment numbers, and feel slighted by their "salvation is only with us" attitudes.

There are more than 75,000 Jewish people and 200 Hindu families in Las Vegas. Rabbi Mel Hecht of Temple Beth Am and a member of the National Conference of Christians and Jews Interfaith Council in Las Vegas, said, "There has been a tremendous amount of ecumenical fellowship here. But we've never been confronted with anything like this here in Las Vegas. If the Baptist community of Las Vegas wants to make evangelizing an issue, they will have the wrath of the Jewish community and other faith communities as well."

Rev. Tommy Starkes, a local Southern Baptist pastor, said about the effort, "There are tens of thousands of people out there who just need someone to talk to. It will be pastoral counseling that may eventually lead to a witness (evangelizing), but it won't be forced on them."

Rev. Starks continued, "At the end of all of this, we'd like to have a city where people turn to their faith community for their needs." He personally isn't too thrilled about the prayer guide publication done by SBC headquarters and thinks things will be different in Las Vegas.

Rev. Starkes envisions the year as one devoted to "ecumenical" efforts. "We have sought to enlist other Protestants in it. We see it as being a Christian event, much larger than just the Southern Baptists."

Las Vegas also is home to a large Mormon population, some 78,000 according to a local church spokesman, Will Stoddard. He says that they expect church members will treat the Baptists with the same kindness and graciousness that they received in Salt Lake City.

Stoddard said, "In Clark County, insofar as I'm aware, we've gotten along well with them, and we believe we will continue to do so. It is our desire to respect the beliefs of others, but we hope the Baptists will do the same."

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 Kent Larsen · Privacy Information