Baptist Missionaries Target Park Slope Students at School, Parents Say
PARK SLOPE — A group of missionaries from an allegedly "discriminatory" Baptist church riled Park Slope parents this week when they handed out fliers outside P.S. 282 inviting students to attend Bible school.
Parents said three men from a Baptist church in South Carolina stood at the school's main gate Tuesday distributing the fliers during morning drop-off. Children streaming into P.S. 282 were urged to take a flier before entering the school, P.S. 282 mother Ernestine Heldring claimed.
However, church group members said no children were forced to take fliers.
The literature beckoned first- through fifth-graders at the school to attend "VBS," short for vacation Bible school, at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, which sits kitty-corner to the school on Sixth Avenue between Berkeley and Lincoln places.
The missionaries, who were visting New York from Concord Baptist Church in South Carolina, drove up to New York on June 21 to spend a week spreading the word of God and trying to boost membership for Sixth Avenue Baptist.
"Our message is Jesus, period," Concord Baptist Pastor Guy Roberts said. "Jesus told us when he went back to Heaven, go tell the world. New York is part of the world."
But that zeal didn't sit well with parents like Heldring, a former world religions teacher who occasionally attends a Dutch Reformed church on Seventh Avenue. Heldring said she was shocked when she spotted the missionaries stationed outside the school.
She noted she's seen the missionaries on past visits to Park Slope, where they've handed out fliers and balloons on a corner near P.S. 282. Heldring said she was particularly galled because Concord Baptist sent three white men to stand at the entrance of diverse P.S. 282, where 67 percent of the students are African-American, 24 percent are Latino and 6 percent are white, according to the Department of Education.
"I know this church," Heldring said. "Every summer they truck these kids up to proselytize. It's a brand of Christianity that's homophobic and homogenous, and I find it oppressive to have three white guys standing there making it impossible for kids to pass without taking a flier."
Heldring said she alerted the school's principal, who she noted was unaware of the situation. An employee at the school said Principal Magalie Alexis wasn't available for comment Tuesday afternoon. The Department of Education could not be reached immediately for comment late Tuesday.
Heldring, whose great great-grandfather was a well-known 19th century Dutch clergyman, claimed Concord Baptist practices a version of Christianity that's "exclusive" and "discriminatory." She noted that the church is opposed to gay marriage, and that many P.S. 282 students have gay parents.
A dad at the school said he was equally upset, especially because of the number of P.S. 282 kids with gay parents and the fact that the school serves children of "Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Tenrikyo, Buddhist, Agnostic and Atheist parents," he said.
"These outsiders from South Carolina are showing little respect for our school, our neighborhood, our diversity and our values here in Brooklyn," wrote the father, who didn't want to be named, in an email.
"Park Slope is relatively affluent — perhaps if they really want to honor Christ's teachings they could go to some disadvantaged areas of the city and feed the poor."
Concord Pastor Guy Roberts acknowledged that his flock doesn't believe in gay marriage, but said the issue wouldn't come up at Bible school. The school takes place over four nights at Sixth Avenue Baptist, where first-graders through fifth-graders attend a 90-minute session in which students learn Bible lessons, make a craft project, eat a snack and sing Christian-themed songs. Monday night's Bible lesson was about creation, Roberts said.
"Christ loved us and we love the world," Roberts said. "That might be offensive to some people because they feel like we're ramming it down their throats, but we feel like we have the truth. We want to share it because we love Christ."
He added, "I understand that kids can be manipulated, but that's never anything we would do." Roberts noted that the flier contained only an invitation, no scripture or doctrine.
Concord Baptist has led a missionary trip to New York for its younger members for the past 15 years, and has also ventured as far as Montana, Roberts said. The 250-member church is in tiny Pickens, S.C., a town of about 3,100 nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
As for proselytizing in New York, it's an uphill battle, though New Yorkers are "friendly" and "nice," Roberts said. The missionaries managed to attract two or three elementary-age kids to last year's vacation Bible school, and a few dozen teens to last year's Teen Revival, a service for sixth-graders and older, Roberts said.
But the Southern missionaries sometimes find a warm welcome tucked among the cold stares many New Yorkers give them, Roberts said.
After church members built a new shelter for Sixth Avenue Baptist's garbage cans this week, a Park Slope resident originally from Greenville, S.C., who saw their work stopped in with a plate of freshly baked hot biscuits. Roberts was pleasantly surprised.
"Southern hospitality," a shocked Roberts said. "You've got to be kidding me — in New York?"