2016-07-27
CHICAGO, July 9 (RNS)--Mother Annie Bolden, an African-American retired day-care worker, and Dave Cooper, a white biotechnician, teamed up Saturday on the streets of South Side Chicago, delivering Scripture and their faith to the neighborhood's residents.

Bolden, 65, a member of nearby Evening Star Missionary Baptist Church in the Englewood community, and Cooper, 46, a member of Second Baptist Church in Springfield, Mo., had little in common, but they came together for one day to share their mutual Christian faith.

"Remember, God loves you," the woman told a couple with their two young children as they met on the sidewalk, handing the family "The Book of Hope," which included Scripture verses along with a tape of her church's choir. "Introduce them to Jesus."

A few blocks later, Cooper approached two young boys with their handouts.

"Jesus has got a plan for your life and part of that is for you to know him as your best friend," he told them. "Think about it, guys. This is a big, important decision."

Bolden, Cooper, and Cooper's 14-year-old daughter, Hannah, were just one of many teams of Southern Baptists who evangelized throughout the Chicago metropolitan area as part of SearchLight, the Saturday event that highlighted the Southern Baptist Convention's goal to create more converts and churches in the Windy City and its environs.

Southern Baptist officials estimate that 5,000 volunteers converged on the metropolitan area to lead hundreds of events. From block parties to free car washes to construction projects, faith in action was the mode for the day.

But the numbers were far lower than Baptist organizers had originally hoped. The Chicago Metropolitan Baptist Association declared in a brochure that "we are praying for 100,000 volunteers to come as 'lights' to saturate the metro area with the love of Jesus."

Officials downplayed their hopes for such high numbers but said they weren't disappointed with the turnout of volunteers from Southern Baptist and other evangelical churches.

"One hundred thousand was a vision for the entire year," said Martin King, spokesman for the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, which initiated the event. "And we don't know what we'll have the rest of the year."

Some Southern Baptist officials said the event was helped rather than hurt by the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, which drew attention to it by writing to former SBC President Paige Patterson urging that the denomination modify plans for sending evangelizing volunteers to the city.

The council, which originally was concerned that Baptists would target Muslims and Jews, did not monitor SearchLight after Baptists assured them there would not be targeting of specific groups.

"We have no formal efforts out there," said the Rev. Paul Rutgers, the council's executive director, in a phone interview Saturday. "Things are unfolding this weekend pretty routinely."

The teamwork of predominantly black Evening Star and predominantly white Second Baptist included block parties at two locations off Chicago's 59th Street, as well as door-to-door evangelism.

As the Coopers and Bolden made their rounds in their red T-shirts, neighborhood reception ranged from rejection to hearty affirmation.

A teenager who stood with his arms folded throughout their brief chat said afterward he respected their attempts but wasn't interested.

"It's good helping out people, but I won't become no Christian," said Ronnie Shepherd, 17, a high school senior.

Seventy-six-year-old Fred Burns, on the other hand, flipped the pages of the well-worn Bible on his lap as he sat on his front stoop to find verses in Luke that spoke of Jesus being called "to preach the Gospel to the poor."

"If he's doing this, he's doing the work of the Lord," Burns said of Cooper.

Phil Harris, 35, an engineer who serves as director of evangelism for Second Baptist, came back with the kind of success story Baptists hope for.

"I had three decisions for the Lord," he said of a single mother and two teenage boys he met at the beginning and end of his neighborhood tour with another elder of Evening Star. "I feel great. It's a good feeling when the Lord's allowed you to impact someone for eternity."

Though the Coopers and Bolden did not have as direct results, they said they hoped they had planted "seeds" that would bloom into Christian faith.

Bolden said in her last four weeks of regular evangelism in other neighborhoods, just one of the people she met showed up for a service at Evening Star.

"If I hadn't went out, then would she have come?" she asked. "God's got his own time. It's going to be whenever he gets ready."

At Grant Park, the downtown park bordering Lake Michigan, a couple hundred Baptists and other evangelicals gathered for a multicultural "praise and prayer" time at the conclusion of their day of evangelism.

Even as some sang and prayed, volunteers continued passing out tracts and "The Book of Hope," a 53-page booklet of Scripture readings provided by the Christian Broadcasting Network, to people passing by on foot, skates, and bicycles. Others distributed "Chicago 2000 SearchLight" Frisbees that included detailed instructions on "Making the Disc Fly Right" and "Making Your Life Fly Right" on the undersides.

Southern Baptists hope the efforts by them and other evangelicals during the days surrounding the SearchLight emphasis will lead to church membership, sometimes in newly "planted" congregations.

"It's not just hit-and-run evangelism," said Bob Moore, Strategic Focus Cities coordinator with the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board. "We want to see people find a church to grow in.... This was one day that kind of typifies in a mass scale what we want to see happen in Chicago and other great cities."

Southern Baptists intend to focus on two major cities each year through the initiative, with Chicago and Phoenix the first to get yearlong attention. Ads aired on Chicago radio and television stations for the two weeks prior to SearchLight prompted more than 2,200 requests for copies of "The Book of Hope" or a video about Jesus.

Many people involved in the Chicago-area effort--from the evangelists to those evangelized--equated increased conversions with lower crime rates.

Mother Betty Price, founder of the Feed Clothe and Help the Needy program, where a block party was led by Second Baptist volunteers, appreciated the group's donations of time, supplies, and spiritual support.

"I think it's great," Price, a member of True Church of Holiness in Chicago, said of the Baptists' evangelistic effort. "The more people who come to Christ, we'll have less crime."

People interviewed on the street said the face painting and children's games at the block parties gave young people a spot to play away from crime, gangs, and drugs.

"We have a community in crisis, and it's in crisis because, I would say, lack of spiritual leadership," said Pastor Vesta Dixon of Evening Star. "The church has to be holistic. It has to care about the whole man."

His church has partnered with Second Baptist on other occasions, visiting each other's congregations for the past couple of years, working on construction projects at the Chicago church and jointly producing a recording of Evening Star's choir. Officials of both churches hope the names and addresses they gained from their neighborhood canvassing will add to the membership rolls of Evening Star and other churches.

Cindy Morrow, U.S. missions minister for Second Baptist Church of Springfield, Mo., who governed her volunteers with a fanny pack and cell phone at her waist, said her church was "thrilled" by the "long conversations with talking about kids and family and the Lord," that occurred between church and community members.

"It was fantastic," Morrow said. "God has poured out blessings on us."

Southern Baptist officials estimated about 2,000 Southern Baptists in the greater Chicago area were joined by about 1,500 other evangelicals in the metropolitan region as well as about 1,500 Southern Baptists from out of town. The total of volunteers exceeds most of the "Crossover" evangelizing events the Southern Baptists hold each year in the city of their annual meeting.

Part of the routine was helping build potential membership for churches that have yet to begin meeting. Kevin Garber, lead pastor of LakePointe Church, a new congregation that will begin meeting in the fall in Lake County north of Chicago, was among those evangelizing in the suburbs Saturday.

Southern Baptist officials hope his church, which is being funded by Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., will be one of several churches nationwide that evolve into megachurches with the financial help of existing large churches.

"It's important because this is such a large area," Garber said of the evangelistic thrusts of his denomination. "It's like looking at Mount Everest. It's so overwhelming, but you have to begin somewhere and let people know your great intentions...to be a spiritual lighthouse in the area."


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