DECEMBER 17, 2001
A Conventional Clean-Up?
-- Martin E. Marty
Every time the Southern Baptist Convention does something "in-your-face," the organs that its defenders call "the media" swoop in on them. Sometimes comprehendingly and sometimes uncomprehendingly, they criticize the assumptions and pronouncements of the largest Protestant church in the country. Why do its spokespersons on occasion so violently criticize all other religions and, often, other versions of the Christian faith? Why be aggressive proselytizers in a time when people in non-Christian communities are so tense about what they see as onslaughts? Why be so sure Baptists know whose prayers God hears and whose God doesn't? Why pass resolutions for the very un-Baptist notion of government-supported "school prayer," or reemphasize the notion of "women's submission?" "The media" react reflexively.
There is another side to Southern Baptist faith and practice, visible in the lives of so many of its members. Was the most suspect print medium, The New York Times, standing under the mistletoe when tossing a kiss to the Baptists with its story on December fourth, "Doing Good Deeds, and Windows; Baptist Volunteers Clean Homes Near Ground Zero." Was it the season to be so jolly, merry, and generous that led the Times to place a poinsettia on the Baptist doorstep, and leave a wreath on the door, as Alison Leigh Cowan did in her story?
Hers is a charmed and charming account of 1,000 Southern Baptists "who have traveled hundreds of miles in recent weeks on their own dime" to clean homes of people victimized by the attack on the near-to-them World Trade Center. "Many members of this God squad are veterans of other cleanups" as in Honduras and Venezuela. "Volunteers contribute one week of hard labor. No proselytizing is allowed. But each cleanup begins with a brief prayer." Good. They sleep in an old jail, "the Hilton," they call it, in a city of empty hotel rooms. No problem. Heavy bars guard their cells, and "military working dogs" patrol outside. "We're used to third-world countries. So we're used to this kind of accommodations." Many had never been in New York but within a week were helpfully giving directions to lost natives.
Culture clash is often evident. Some suspect that "in a town full of sophisticates, they are entertainment. 'They keep us talking just to hear us talk,'" said one. But, when one resident was told that New Englanders would clean his place, he said, "I don't want Yankees. I want those Southern Baptists." "What wonderful people," said another. Thanks for giving us something positive to "sight," you Southern Baptists and New York Times. Merry Christmas.