Atlanta at Crossroads Of Sports, Scriptures

OLYMPICS MEETS BIBLE BELT

The Baptists will be handing out gift bags with everything from mints to Scripture verses. The Presbyterians will be organizing a prayer circle, bringing together churches from around the world to pray for peace. And the Jews will offer meals and housing to Orthodox visitors.

From inner-city neighborhoods to leafy suburban enclaves, Atlanta's churches, synagogues, and mosques are preparing to usher in the 1996 Summer Olympics with a dose of Southern "Bible belt" hospitality. The event - which many area churches have anticipated for six years - will offer a remarkable blend of sports, spectators, and Scripture on an unprecedented scale.

The outreach to some 2 million expected visitors and more than 11,000 athletes, is as much a hospitality mission as an effort to spread the Word and possibly fill a few pews. Religious leaders also are hoping that a unity developed among churches continues well after the Olympic torch goes out.

"The role religion will play is going to be very great and probably more so than any other Olympic Games in history because of where we are and the emphasis and positive regard that religion has in this part of the world," says Stephen Overall, a chaplain and director of staff support services at Atlanta's Emory University Hospital.

While the scope of the efforts varies, the audiences are the same: athletes, their families, and spectators.

For example, St. Mark United Methodist Church is one of 10 large congregations along the city's well-traveled Peachtree Street that will play host by dispensing cold water to the heat-weary and offering church tours, concerts, and religious art exhibits.

"We see the Olympics as a grand opportunity to open our doors," says senior minister the Rev. Mike Cordle.

Other planned events include:

*Quest Atlanta '96, a group representing 28 evangelical Christian denominations and 1,500 churches, plans to host families of Olympic athletes, distribute literature, and set up sports leagues that combine Christian values with athletic discipline.

*In the Olympic Village, 37 chaplains from many different faiths will be on hand in khaki uniforms to support athletes, team officials, and others should they desire it. Two religious service centers will be set up for prayer, services, and meditation.

*South Carolina and Georgia Baptists will erect hospitality stands along their states' highways, handing out 300,000 gift bags containing everything from mints to a booklet of Olympic facts and Scripture verses.

BECAUSE of the diverse congregations involved, however, some in the religious community are concerned about proselytizing. Olympic Village chaplains have to sign covenants promising not to proselytize and to leave if they do.

"There will be some [in the religious community] who will perhaps be inappropriately aggressive," says the Rev. Kirk Bridgers, chairman of the board of Quest Atlanta '96. The goal, when hosting in one's home, he says, "is to serve as a gracious presence and to welcome them to come to worship services with you, but not to predicate that upon whether or not they get served the evening meal."

The Olympics have become more sensitive to the religious and spiritual needs of athletes since the early 1980s, says Mr. Overall, who serves as chairman of the Interfaith Advisory Group, a task force formed to meet the religious needs of athletes.

"Before that time, I think predominantly Christian groups of ministers and host cities came forward and offered to provide services for Protestants on a quasi interfaith basis," he says. "What distinguishes what we're trying to do - and I think Barcelona did this as well - was to be intentional about drawing in multifaith representatives from the outset."

Many churches hope to continue their outreach efforts after the Olympics is over. "We're allowing the Olympics to serve as a catalyst for motivating us to get busy dealing with the differences we have in our own community," says Mr. Bridgers, who is a Lutheran pastor.

Indeed, many agree, religion is one of Atlanta's attractions. "It's a very rich part of the tapestry of this city," says Clifton Irby of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Atlanta. "This is not Barcelona; we're not the most beautiful city in the world, and we do not have a thousand-year history. But we're a good, decent people, and a lot of that grows out of the religious character of the community. We have a lot to share with the world in that regard."

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