Nats' Church Apologizes for Remarks About Jews

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Washington Nationals suspended a volunteer chaplain and distributed an apology from outfielder Ryan Church yesterday, two days after Church was quoted in a front-page Post article as suggesting that Jews are headed for eternal damnation.

Tony Tavares, the team's president, issued a statement saying the quotations in the article "do not, in any manner, reflect the views or opinions of the Washington Nationals franchise."

Tavares acted following complaints from Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, leader of an Orthodox Jewish congregation in Washington, who said it appeared that "the locker room of the Nationals is being used to preach hatred" and urged the club to distance itself from Church's remarks.

Tavares said he was conducting an investigation that might lead to the permanent removal of chaplain Jon Moeller, an FBI agent who volunteers for Baseball Chapel, the Pennsylvania-based evangelical Christian group that provides unpaid ministers for many major and minor league teams. "I don't dispute his right to teach his Christian beliefs. It's just the way this was done, turning this into some public pulpit . . . that's what troubles me," Tavares said.

An article in Sunday's paper about Baseball Chapel quoted Church as saying that he had turned to Moeller for advice about his former girlfriend, who was Jewish. "I said, like, Jewish people, they don't believe in Jesus. Does that mean they're doomed? Jon nodded, like, that's what it meant. My ex-girlfriend! I was like, man, if they only knew. Other religions don't know any better. It's up to us to spread the word," Church said.

In a written statement yesterday distributed by the team, Church said: "Those who know me on a personal level understand that I am not the type of person who would call into question the religious beliefs of others. I sincerely regret if the quote attributed to me in Sunday's Washington Post article offended anyone."

A spokeswoman for the team, Chartese Burnett, said Church would not have any additional comment.

Moeller did not respond to e-mails and telephone calls, and neither did officials of Baseball Chapel. But some evangelical Christian leaders defended Moeller, saying he had simply reiterated the traditional Christian doctrine that Jesus is the only way to salvation.

"Just how many ways can you interpret the words of Jesus in John 14:5-6, 'I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me,' " said the Rev. Richard Land, head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. "The worst this chaplain could be convicted of is ascribing to orthodox Christian historic faith, which is what I would think you would want from a Christian chaplain."

The Rev. Christopher M. Leighton, a Presbyterian minister who is executive director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore, said that while the "dominant tradition" in Christianity has emphasized the exclusivity of salvation, Roman Catholics and many Protestant denominations have moved toward the view that God has a "continuing covenant" with the Jews.

"It's a real shame that this challenge had to be mounted by a rabbi. This is the work that really belonged to other Christians, to say this is an unacceptable understanding of our faith," he said.

Tavares said that the choice of chaplain was made by the players, and that the Nationals would be glad to make similar provisions for Catholics, Jews, Muslims and others who work for the club.

"But one of the cautions I intend to give anyone who comes in here is, these are private services and should be kept private," he said. "I'm not trying to change anyone's religion or beliefs. I just cannot provide a public pulpit."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company