A year of dialogue and national controversy has produced "a new Bailey Smith, a different Bailey Smith," said a Jewish leader who recently addressed Smith's congregation in Del City, Okla.
Nearly a year ago, the Rev. Bailey Smith, who was reelected earlier this month as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, outraged the Jewish community, other religious leaders and many of his fellow Baptists by saying before a national forum that "God doesn't hear the prayers of a Jew."
Smith's comment triggered a formal dialogue with national Jewish leaders in New York in December, which has produced continuing contacts between Smith and Theodore Freedman, director of the national program division of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith in New York.
In late April, Freedman accepted Smith's longstanding invitation to speak at the First Baptist Church of Del City, the first Jew ever to appear in the church's pulpit.
"I was nervous and he was nervous" about the appearance, Freedman said in a television interview from New York. But the response by both Smith and the congregation was so warm that Freedman was prompted to write a first-person account of the encounter for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's nationally distributed news service.
"Although I have appeared before many Christian church groups and all types of audiences, nothing really prepared me for this address before 3,000 people" at Smith's church, Freedman wrote. "Even the very pulpit was daunting -- in the form of a cross. . . . There was an air of unreality that made me ask myself: What was a Jew doing on this platform, in the heart of the Bible Belt before a fundamentalist Christian audience?"
Freedman spoke at the church's regular Wednesday night prayer meeting, followed by a sermon by Smith and a service of baptism, by immersion, of two new members. It was the first such service he had ever witnessed, Freedman said.
The ADL leader said Smith had imposed "no conditions of any kind, of what I should talk about or how long I should talk."
He said the invitation grew out of the meeting last December of Smith with the New York Jewish leaders. "We have spoken on the phone any number of times since then on a regular basis. We became very good telephone visitors," Freedman said. During those telephone conversations Smith repeatedly pressed his invitation to come and speak at the Del City church "if I was ever down that way," Freedman said.
When a spring business trip took him to Oklahoma, Freedman arranged to include Del City in his schedule on April 29. "Bailey met me at the airport and we spent the day together," Freedman said.
In his Baptist Press account of the evening at the church, Freedman wrote: "As Smith welcomed the congregation and the choir performed, I wondered how I would be received. Glancing at the platform, I could see a little apprehension on Smith's face. No doubt he was wondering what I would say."
Freedman wrote that "the spirit was marvelously informal and friendly. Infants sat on their mothers' laps; their cries going unnoticed or at least accepted as part of the normalcy of the shared experience. The people were alive and natural -- a far cry from the hushed, puritanical religious services one experiences in so many other houses of worship."
There was "warm applause," Freedman wrote, when he was introduced by Smith, and when the Jewish leader began his remarks by referring to "our common scriptures, I could hear murmurs of 'amen, amen,'" he continued.
"I told the assemblage that we have been separated for too long and at times this has caused misunderstandinmg and tension. But in the midst of that we have found reconciliation. Just as Jacob and Esau [brothers who became rivals for their father's favor in the Old Testament account] grew apart and became alientated one from the other, so too unfortunately have we Jews and Southern Baptists. And yet, like Jacob and Esau, we now meet with outstretched arms and greet each other with the word 'shalom' -- peace," he continued his account.
In his remarks to the Baptist congregation, Freedman said he drew the parallel between the Jewish high holiday of Passover and the Christians' Easter, both with the common theme of ultimate deliverance and salvation. Jews, he said "have suffered the cataclysmic Holocaust, but we also rejoice in the rebirth of the people and land of Israel. As Ezekiel, the prophet, did, we too looked into the valley of death and saw bones, dry bones in the ashes of Auschwitz, and we asked: 'Will these bones live again? We heard God's resounding voice speaking to us through the state of Israel, saying, 'Yes the Jewish people live and will live. . . .
"On Good Friday, you commemorate the death of Jesus and recall the travails he underwent in his passion. But three days later, you celebrate Easter and proclaim, 'Christ is risen.' You too affirm that darkness will be followd by light, night by day, suffering by joy, and death by resurrection," he told the congregation.
Freedman said his remarks were greeted by applause, and that after the lengthy service was over, "quite a few people" spoke to him. "A number of them watched to talk in terms of substance. . . . It really was reassuring," he said.
In his Baptist Press article, which the news service's chief, Jim Newton, said was written and published at Freedman's suggestion, the Jewish leader said, "I felt a great sense of satisfication. I felt that I had seen a new Bailey Smith, a different Bailey Smith from last year or even from the Bailey Smith prior to last December when he visited ADL."
"It was a very positive experience," Freedman said of the Oklahoma encounter, and he disclosed plans for further cooperation. "Bailey and I and a group of Baptist leaders he chooses will go to Israel in the fall. He wants to see Jewish Israel," Freedman said.