2016-06-30
"Where are my volunteers?" David Buckner asked no one in particular, as he tapped his watch. The day before the torch arrived in Salt Lake City, Buckner, a coordinator for Global Outreach, a ministry that seeks to tap "the energy and enthusiasm of the Winter Games" for Jesus, had stacks of boxes to unpack, an office piled with tools, paint cans, and building material to organize, and 15,000 misplaced pocket ministry guides to deliver across town. By 10 a.m., only one of two groups of volunteers scheduled for the morning shift had arrived. This meant that Buckner would have to give his introductory spiel twice.

When the second group showed up an hour later, Buckner took a head count and realized he had almost twice the volunteers he'd requested. "I'll just have to send more people out on roaming ministry," he said, scratching his chin.

Soon, the extra bodies, armed with handouts, were off to share their faith at one of the designated hot spots in Salt Lake City--transportation hubs, Gallivan Plaza, the Medals Plaza, and Temple Square, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' historic 10-acre headquarters complex--the Mormon Vatican.

The Mormons, wary of world opinion, have vowed not to proselytize during the Games. And unless you stray into Temple Square, where you are considered fair game, they seem to be keeping their promise. David Buckner is a Southern Baptist. The Southern Baptist Convention has sent more than 1,200 souls, mostly from Kentucky, South Carolina, and Georgia, to evangelize at Olympic venues from Salt Lake City and Provo to Park City, Ogden, and Heber City.

Buckner's outpost is the Main Street Coffee House. Located just a block and a half from Temple Square, it is a warm, high-ceilinged space decorated with international flags and Olympic memorabilia, without a hint of Christianity. My first day in Salt Lake, I had tea there without realizing what the place actually was. When I told Buckner this the next day, the Kentucky native and student at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, north of San Francisco, smiled. "That's exactly the effect we're after."

"My goal is for every person who comes in here to see, hear, or read something that will push a button," Buckner said. "Hopefully, that will spark a conversation leading that person to accept Jesus Christ. And if that doesn't happen, at least a button will have been pushed, and they'll go home with some literature. The trick," he added, "is to bring people in."

Outside the coffee shop, street performers sing and dance, paint faces, and twist balloon animals. Inside, a caricature artist offers free sketches. Upstairs, Christian bands play on a stage visible to passersby, and when the bands aren't playing, a huge television shows the Olympic events occurring downtown and in the hills and towns around Salt Lake. As foot traffic slows to watch, Buckner's volunteers mingle, creating what Buckner calls "intentional encounters." If a visitor wants to get down to business with Jesus, the Coffee House has a private prayer room in the back.

The Coffee House is one of only two places in Salt Lake that offers free Internet access. The other is Global Outreach's "command center" across town, which boasts its own vast hospitality lounge, while in the parking lot youth choirs, Christian drama groups and bands perform. Free coffee and water are available under three white tents.

The command center represents the Baptists' sole miscalculation. City officials anticipated some 70,000 visitors each day would take buses from Pioneer Park on their way to the Olympic venues, but Pioneer Park turns out to be too far from the action, and the command center is serving mostly off-duty volunteers escaping the crowds at the Coffee Shop, and checking in at Global Outreach's administration offices on the second floor.

Under various names, the Southern Baptists have been "doing Olympic ministry" since Lake Placid in 1980. "We've evolved a lot over the years," said Doran Dennis, coordinator for the command center. "For example, we learned that tracts become trash really quickly. That's why at the Atlanta Games we started distributing guides full of inspiring athletes' stories, fun Olympic facts, maps, and events schedules. People don't throw those away. Then in the back there's a gospel presentation that will lead them to Christ."

Global Outreach's preparation for this year's Olympics rivals many of the athletes'. Buckner, on his fourth Olympics, has been in town six months. Doran Dennis, a Johnsonville, S.C. native, has been in Salt Lake since graduating from Francis Marion University last May. Global Outreach Director Beth Ann Williams, has been laying the groundwork in Salt Lake City since the middle of 1999.

Global Outreach also has tremendous support in the home congregations. "There's the Prayer Partners program," said Dennis. "We've got thousands of people praying for our needs posted on our website." The Kentucky Southern Baptist Convention is sponsoring something called "24/17"--churches across Kentucky are taking turns praying 24 hours a day for the 17 days of the Olympics.

Ultimately, it's all about saving the damned. "But," Buckner notes, "we strive to witness in a positive, non-threatening manner. We're not just shoving tracts in people's faces. We're here to meet needs. What I tell volunteers is, if you meet a person's need--whether it's with a balloon animal or a cup of coffee--then you're entitled to share you're faith with them." One group of volunteers from Florida arrived at the coffee house jubilant about their spiritual victory on the train ride from the local church where they're staying. "I got to talking with this lady," one woman said, "and I led her to Jesus right there!"

Not everybody agrees that a conversation struck up over a balloon animal warrants a discourse on John 3:16--least of all Mormons, who constitute 63 percent of Utah's population, and consider Salt Lake City their turf alone. Though Mormons and Baptists share strong family values and conservative politics, the theological chasm dividing them is insurmountable. Most Southern Baptists consider the Mormon Church a cult. The Mormons, whose founder Joseph Smith claimed God revealed all other churches to be false, find Baptist adherence to the doctrine of the Trinity and their insistence that scripture is limited to the Old and New Testaments abominable.

But it is missionary work that has stoked tensions between America's two fastest growing major faiths. Mormons are still angered by the Southern Baptist assault on Salt Lake in 1998, when the Baptists chose the city for their annual convention. Roughly 50,000 Southern Baptists descended, and made no bones about their desire convert Mormons. Direct-mailings went to nearly 400,000 homes. The Baptists ran 150 television commercials and 500 radio spots, placed newspaper ads, and bought billboard space. Some 2,500 of them went door-to-door. To prepare their flocks, 50,000 churches received a copy of a 75-minute video called "The Mormon Puzzle."

It's reasonable to ask whether David Buckner is inviting trouble by sending Southern Baptists to witness in Temple Square. "I don't send them anywhere," he said. "I give them a list of locations and let them choose. If they want to tackle Temple Square, more power to them! They've been advised to know their stuff, as well as the LDS teachings. Hopefully," he added, "they'll have a good conversation with the Mormons, and not an ugly confrontation."

What's certain is that Global Outreach personnel will encounter Mormons doing their part. On a visit to Temple Square last week, as I ogled the six towering spires of the Salt Lake Temple that have become the symbol of the Winter Games, no fewer than 22 missionaries approached me. The missionaries were exclusively women in their early 20s and were teamed in pairs. (As any bar manager knows, female bartenders not only draw business, they provoke fewer confrontations with customers.)

The young women smiled a lot and were perky to a fault. They introduced themselves by their last names ("Hi, I'm sister Sargent") and asked where I was from. They gently described their faith, asked if I attended a church and whether I had questions about anything I'd learned from the ubiquitous displays and exhibits explaining Mormon history and beliefs. The most probing question I got was: "What do you believe a prophet's message to the world today would be?"

Twice I was offered a free copy of The Book of Mormon, which I would have gladly accepted, except they wouldn't give me one. They said I had to provide my home address so a missionary could deliver it to my door. I said I'd buy my own copy.

Back at the Coffee House, I asked David Buckner if he thought the Mormons would stick to their word not to share their faith beyond Temple Square during the Olympics. "No," he said. "I've not been approached outside Temple Square, and I don't expect them to pair up and get all nice and come out in force. But I do expect something, mainly because just last week, at a major LDS celebration, one of their 12 apostles stood up and said, 'The Olympics fulfills Joseph Smith's prophecy that the world will come to our feet, and that kings and queens and nations will seek us out."

The Baptists have plans to keep The Main Street Coffee House operating after the Olympics close. A local Southern Baptist church has leased the retail space for four years and will hold services on the second floor.

I asked Buckner how the Mormons would react if they knew there was an evangelical ministry masked as a coffee shop just off Temple Square. "I have no idea," he said. "From a p.r. perspective, they'd probably do nothing. They want to be considered a Christian denomination, so it would look bad if they closed down a Christian coffee shop. But they could really make it hard for us."

"For example," Buckner added, "one of our staff members, who lives next to a ward--a Mormon church--was putting a roof on his house. One of the Mormon men walked over and said, 'Hey, you got a permit for that?' Within an hour or so somebody from whatever department showed up and told them to stop work. That's how they handle Christian organizations.

"As for the coffee shop," he continued, "they had to jump through a lot of hoops to open this in six months. But it was not nearly the ordeal it could have been if the Mormons knew it was Christian." After a pause, he added, "It was an act of God that cleared the path for all this to happen."

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