- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2003

PHOENIX — The Southern Baptist Convention announced a new initiative yesterday to convince homosexuals that they can change their behavior if they accept Jesus Christ as their savior and reject their “sinful, destructive lifestyle.”

At the denomination’s annual meeting, leaders urged their more than 42,000 churches nationwide to reach out compassionately to homosexuals with a message about how Christianity can save them.

“Homosexuals can find freedom from this sinful, destructive lifestyle,” said Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptists’ public-policy arm. “They can be redeemed. They can be liberated.”

The presentation included testimony from a Southern Baptist pastor from Texas who said he realized that his strident criticism of homosexuals had prevented them from coming to him for help.

A Southern Baptist task force on ministry to homosexuals developed the initiative after it was discovered several Southern Baptist churches and agencies were either conducting or supporting such outreach already.

This latest push is meant to make these efforts a priority for churches throughout the country. The task force developed a Web site that has Bible study materials, testimonials from homosexuals who changed their orientation and advice on helping people who have AIDS.

The meeting is scheduled to end tonight, with attendees approving resolutions on other issues, all of which express the Southern Baptist view on issues but do not bind on individual churches.

Several Christian groups in the United States try to convince homosexuals that they should become heterosexual.

The Southern Baptists, like all evangelicals, have been speaking out against homosexuality for years, including boycotting the Walt Disney Co., partly because homosexual groups hold their “Gay Days” festivities at Disney’s amusement parks.

Pro-homosexual groups picket the Southern Baptist meeting each year, accusing members of spreading hatred. Last year, 50 were arrested after they tried to disrupt the gathering.

But Mr. Land said Southern Baptists wanted to help homosexuals, and encouraged homosexuals in the meeting to come forward to seek help.

“We want you to know that we love you, and more importantly Jesus loves you, and there is a way out,” Mr. Land said.

Earlier yesterday, the Southern Baptist president in a keynote address urged members to denounce sinful behavior to a decadent culture and proclaim Christianity the true religion.

The Rev. Jack Graham said evangelicals should not respond to opponents by “retreating into some Christian subculture,” but should instead “penetrate the darkness of our culture” with the teachings of Jesus.

Mr. Graham, head of the 21,000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, was re-elected to a second one-year term by the nearly 7,000 attendees later yesterday.

President Bush addressed the meeting earlier by videotape, calling the 16 million Southern Baptists, the nation’s largest non-Catholic church, “faithful servants” and asking God to bless them.

“You and I share many common values. We believe in fostering a culture of life and that marriage and family are sacred institutions,” said Mr. Bush, a Methodist.

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