Keeping the Faith

The Reverend Bob Newell says Baptists and Jews both began as minorities.
Deron Neblett

Every Sunday morning Frank Minton saves people. He immerses sinners in holy water and helps them take Jesus into their hearts. But of the hundreds he has saved, the 65-year-old preacher has baptized only two Jews.

"That's bad, isn't it?" asks Minton, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Bellaire. His numbers are low. At Southern Baptist conventions he feels ashamed. Like most Houston preachers, Minton doesn't focus on converting Jews. He hasn't waged a war or organized an army to convert the Hebrews. Southern Baptists in Dallas may be putting forth a huge effort to reform and convert Jews, but in Houston most Jews and Baptists coexist peacefully. The two faiths are working toward friendship and understanding, respecting each others' religions instead of fighting.

"I don't look at them as enemies. I don't look at them as a target group to throw darts at. I just feel like they're people that need the Lord," Minton says. "Everyone needs to have a saving experience with Jesus Christ, whether they're a Jew or a gentile or whatever. Without Christ they're lost. It's out of compassion -- it's not that we're better than anybody else."

Minton grew up in Wichita, Kansas. His father was a cattle broker who did the drinking, and his mother did the swearing. His parents didn't go to church -- his mother thought preachers were scabs on society. Minton and his twin brother wandered into a Baptist church one Sunday night when they were 11 and kept going back every weekend. Then they walked down the aisle and were saved; finding Jesus brought Minton joy.

"I thought that life was a dark tunnel; you lived, you died," he says. He was hungry, his socks had holes, and the police came regularly in the middle of the night to take his daddy to jail. The church improved his life. He just wants to do for others what was done for him.

Even when he was a left-handed pitcher for the Dodgers, Minton was a missionary. He signed the same year as Sandy Koufax. During spring training at Myrtle Beach, Koufax got the mumps. Minton went to the infirmary every day and prayed for Koufax in Jesus' name.

About 40 years ago Minton's church moved across the street. The church sold its old lot to the conservative Jewish Congregation Brith Shalom. On Jewish high holy days Minton lets them use the Baptist parking lot.

"When I see them they'll have their little hats, and I've been friendly," Minton says. "We try to be good neighbors to them, but we do pray for them because we feel like they need the Lord. We need to witness to the Jews. It's almost been like a closed door."

It has been a closed door because Jews feel they have had to keep it closed. With many Jews intermarrying and assimilating, the faith is being distilled and lost. As Jews convert and stop practicing their faith, Jewish heritage and tradition gradually begin to vanish. Jews interested in keeping Judaism alive aren't interested in becoming Baptist.

Rabbi Howard Siegel at Brith Shalom didn't like the Southern Baptist Convention's "Celebrate Jesus 2000" initiative to convert the Jews. "Everybody has the right to their belief," Siegel says. "That right stops when they feel that their right is to impose themselves on someone else's beliefs."

But his synagogue hasn't been swamped with evangelists. Minton doesn't put flyers on the cars of Jews who park in his lot. The majority of pastors at Houston's Baptist and Southern Baptist churches have good relations with synagogues.

The Reverend Bob Newell wants to improve those relations, to extend them beyond allowing use of church lots. Newell invited Jewish people into his church to promote love, understanding and respect between Jews and Baptists. Newell and members of the Anti-Defamation League sponsored a discussion in March at Memorial Drive Baptist Church called "Southern Baptists and Jews: A Time for Renewed Dialogue." The ADL insisted that it was a closed meeting (even though it was announced through mass e-mailings) and asked the Houston Press notto attend. The ADL argued that the discussion would be less frank if a reporter was present, even if the reporter didn't use names.

At the meeting Newell talked about how both Baptists and Jews have been persecuted for their religious beliefs. In the 1600s the forerunners of the Baptists in Great Britain broke from the Church of England, which had already separated from the Catholic Church. The Puritans still weren't pure enough, so the Baptists split and formed their own church.

"Baptists themselves began as a minority people," Newell says. "That in fact is our history and our heritage."

It is a fact that surprises most people, since the Southern Baptist Convention has grown to 15.8 million members and has more than 40,000 churches in the United States. Houston's phone book lists 159 of them. That's eight times as many churches as the 20 listed synagogues. But centuries ago there were just a handful of Baptists, and many people hated them. When Newell studied at Oxford University, he walked across a bridge every day with a plaque honoring Baptists who had been drowned in the water below because of their religious beliefs.

"That's probably not comparable in size and magnitude to the Holocaust, but if you speak to the parents and relatives of those who were killed, it has the same weight," Newell says. "Baptists and Jews share a same experience of being persecuted for our faith. That unites us. Or it should."

The one thing keeping that thin thread broken is that Baptists have persecuted Jews. Baptists more aggressive than Minton believe that God chose the Jews to carry His message, so converting the Jews is a good idea.

"If the Jewish community would turn to Christ and trust the Lord, they'd be the greatest missionaries on earth," Minton says. "That was God's intention and plan with the Jewish people."

But appealing to the chosen people and witnessing about their faith isn't necessarily converting them, Newell says. He talks to Jews and tells them about Jesus. Just like pastor Mark Redd talks to Jews and everyone he meets about Jesus.

"We always try to convert and mess with people," says Redd, head pastor at the Clay Road Baptist Church. "Always. Unless a person has put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ, then they're on their way to hell."

Houston Baptists talk about the Lord in everyday conversation, but they don't hold a gun to people to make them convert. "Baptists are commanded by the Lord to tell the story of who Jesus is. But our goal is to do so with an air of respect," Newell says. "Conversion is God's business, and I'm comfortable in allowing God to do the converting."

Newell attended the Passover seder of the executive director of the southwestern ADL. And last month he joined the board of the ADL's Coalition for Mutual Respect. The ten-year-old coalition offers an interfaith pulpit exchange to bring rabbis to churches and ministers to synagogues. The whole point is to build respect for other religions, says Martin Cominsky, regional director of the ADL.

"The coalition is an example of what we're doing to try to make things better," Cominsky says. "We work and we talk and we try to bridge gaps that may appear in other communities."

Newell and Cominsky hope that Houston Jews and Southern Baptists can do a joint service project together, such as building a Habitat for Humanity house. "Some kind of effort that might unify us," Newell says. "We're looking for ways to increase understanding."

E-mail Wendy Grossman at

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