Southern Baptists to descend on Atlanta
strictly for business
BYLINE: GALLOWAY, JIM Jim Galloway Staff Writer STAFF
DATE: April 13, 1986
PUBLICATION: The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution
EDITION: The Atlanta Journal Constitution
SECTION: LOCAL NEWS
The three-day assembly of the Southern Baptist Convention at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, now in its final stages of planning, is expected to be the largest collection of working religious delegates in U.S. history, with 50,000 expected and contingency plans for as many as 80,000. They will be drawn by "The Battle of Atlanta, Part II," yet another chapter - perhaps a final one - in a burning, eight-year theological argument over biblical inerrancy and control of the nation's largest Protestant denomination. If you work in Atlanta, call the boss and tell him you'll be late to work Tuesday, June 10.
If he asks why, say you'll be following thousands of Baptists into downtown, and - paraphrasing a bit of Romans 3 for righteousness' sake -"in their paths are gridlocks and MARTA lines, and the way of peace they do not know."
The three-day assembly of the Southern Baptist Convention, now in its final stages of planning, is expected to be the largest collection of working religious delegates in U.S. history, with 50,000 expected and contingency plans for as many as 80,000.
They will be drawn by "The Battle of Atlanta, Part II," yet another chapter - perhaps a final one - in a burning, eight-year theological argument over biblical inerrancy and control of the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
"We're trying to make everyone as comfortable as we can, realizing that no one is going to be completely comfortable," said Ray Johnson, chairman of the state convention-organizing committee.
At the very least, organizers say the city can count on morning traffic jams of miraculous magnitude and jammed MARTA trains.
It is also safe to assume there will be plenty of room in Atlanta's bars and strip joints but little space available at budget restaurants.
"Baptists don't smoke, they don't drink, and because of that, they eat to excess," said one Southern Baptist official. Downtown merchants are advised not to get excited, however.
The average conventioneer in Atlanta drops $141 every day he stays, according to the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau. However, at the last Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas, 73 percent of the 45,519 delegates spent less than $133 a day. Nearly one in five survived on less than $35 a day.
"We're there to conduct business," said the Rev. Fred Wolfe, pastor of the Cottage Hill Baptist Church in Mobile, Ala., and chairman of the SBC's committee on order of business.
Inside the World Congress Center, the delegates - who are called "messengers" - will attempt to operate a massive ecclesiastical democracy with the help of video linkups and a computer to administer Robert's Rules of Order.
The SBC spent $30,000 this year developing a computer to record and choose among points of order, calls for question and points of privilege. Outgoing SBC President Charles Stanley, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, also announced last that the convention had hired a professional parliamentarian.
Stanley is now a defendant in two lawsuits over his application of parliamentary procedures to the actions of messengers in Dallas last year - a sign of the denomination's rough times.
The suits seek an injunction against Stanley and dissolution of a powerful committee. Stanley and the executive committee of the SBC have argued that the U.S. Constitution prohibits any judicial interference with a "purely ecclesiastical body."
Simpler convention problems may be equally difficult to overcome, like judging a show of 50,000 hands, especially when they are spread out over four convention halls. "We have not solved that problem," said Tim Hedquist, the SBC official in Nashville in charge of convention operation.
Even in the main hall, huge video screens will be erected to help messengers in the back acreage to see. Others in nearby auditoriums will be linked by cable, with their own microphones to address the main floor.
All the while, messengers will be nagged by practical considerations: a predicted scarcity of chairs, restrooms and food. Because of an escalator bottleneck in the World Congress Center, organizers believe it will take 2 1/2 hours to get everyone to their places each morning. Messenger No. 48,001, and everyone who follows, will have to stand.
Many of the logistical problems revolve around the type of meeting Baptists hold - in which numerous votes are taken, requiring the almost constant presence of all delegates.
The World Congress Center is an exhibit hall, built for a constant flow of people. Thus the small number of toilets. "You don't design restrooms for 40,000 people to take a break and be back in 15 minutes," said Dan Graveline, director of the center.
Baptist leaders are already counseling patience - and intend to pass out detailed maps showing locations of even the most obscure restrooms.
Brown-bag lunches are also being suggested, Wolfe said.
A national political convention, for which city and state officials are lobbying, would attract only between 12,000 and 15,000 participants, Graveline said - making the Baptist meeting all but useless as a dry run for a Democratic or Republican convention.
"But one thing's for certain, if we can handle Southern Baptists, certainly no one could question our ability to handle the numbers of a political convention," Graveline said.
The assembly will require a day care center for 500 children, ages 6 and under, that will cover the third floor of the World Congress Center. Those kids will have their own restaurant, playground equipment, and registered nurses.
On one day a petting zoo will be brought in. The operation will require an estimated 1,000 baby sitters, said Tommy Gilmore, the pre-school supervisor at First Baptist Church of Atlanta and one of those in charge of the huge nursery.
All of the special arrangements are made necessary by the bitter dispute that threatens to split the 14.4 million-member denomination.
The feud is based on fundamentalist charges that liberalism, primarily identified as unwillingness to embrace the Bible as an unerring source of factual truth, is creeping into the SBC's six seminaries and 20 national agencies, via free-thinking professors and bureaucrats.
Moderates, on the other hand, believe that multiple interpretations of biblical truth can co-exist within this loose confederation of 36,979 churches.
The fight has concentrated on successive fights over the SBC presidency, with fundamentalists winning every round since 1979.
For Atlanta commuters, that means June 10 will be the worst day, with problems decreasing slightly the following two days of the assembly.
This year's session is expected to draw more messengers than the Dallas meeting did, Wolfe said, if for no other reason than Atlanta is closer to most Southern Baptists, and the price of gasoline is far less than it was in 1985. Seventy-one percent of all Southern Baptists live within a hard day's drive of the city.
Georgians are expected to turn out heavily. In Marietta, the Roswell Street Baptist Church plans to run a three-bus shuttle service to the Hightower MARTA station.
Shuttle services and car pools are being heavily emphasized, the SBC's Hedquist said, though national and state Baptist officials still expect between 10,000 and 15,000 Baptist cars to be pointed at the World Congress Center on June 10.
"I hope I'm wrong," said Johnson, the state convention-organizing committee chairman.
MARTA is being advertised as an alternative, which could be just as bad for r egular commuters. "Atlanta is a great city, but it has horrible traffic," Hedquist said, "even without us. These poor Atlantans, they have to understand that Baptists are going to descend on MARTA in hordes."
Fortunately, convention officials are downgrading original estimates of an assembly exceeding 60,000. "Some of the larger travel agencies are saying they're not filling their rooms as quickly as they expected," said Johnson.
"There's something good about the large crowd, because they are more representative of the denomination," said Hedquist. However, this convention and the last one are putting physical strains on the denomination that cannot be controlled forever.
"It's an issue that's going to have to be dealt with," he said, just before he left for St. Louis, the site of the 1987 Southern Baptist Convention. St. Louis, he said, can only handle 20,000 people.
Baptist officials are already talking about holding conventions in two separate cities, linked by satelite, in future years.
Chart: Convention facts and trivia:
- The three-day Atlanta meeting (June 10-12) is expected to be the largest collection of working religious delegates in U.S. history, with 50,000 expected and contingency plans for as many as 80,000.
- Atlanta is the city closest to the Southern Baptist heartland, with 71 percent of all Southern Baptists living within a hard day's drive. Last year, 70 percent drove to the annual meeting. Even with shuttle services and carpooling, natives can expect to compete with between 10,000 and 15,000 automobiles for west Atlanta parking spaces.
- Because of an escalator bottleneck, organizers believe it will take 2 1/2 hours each day to fill the four convention halls at the World Congress Center. - Video links between the delegate halls will keep everyone informed. A professional parliamentarian has been hired and a special computer purchased to keep things orderly.
- Organizers are worried about a shortage of bathrooms and restaurants in the vicinity of the World Congress Center. They suggest delegates may want to pack bag lunches.
- The convention will require an instant day care center for 500 children, age 6 and under, that will cover the third floor of the World Congress Center. The kids will have their own restaurant, playground equipment, and registered nurses. On one day a petting zoo will be brought in. The operation will require an estimated 1,000 baby-sitters.
- Although numerous, Southern Baptists are not big spenders. The average conventioneer in Atlanta drops $141 every day he stays. However, at the last Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas, 73 percent of the 45,519 delegates spent less than $133 a day. Nearly one in five made it through on less than $35 a day. Chart: Attendance at Southern Baptist Conventions: Year.....City.............Attendance
1900.....Hot Springs, Ark.....646
*First convention, figures represent number of delegates Source: 1985 Southern Baptist Convention Annual