NEW ORLEANS -- Southern Baptists fanned out over this city's notorious French Quarter this week and distributed copies of the New Testament and religious tracts in what sailors of long ago called "the edge of hell."
After praying for the city of New Orleans, church workers attending the annual Conference of Southern Baptist Evangelists were encouraged to leave the Superdome to recruit born-again Christians from city streets.
Fears of gridlock at rush hour prompted conference officials to abandon plans to take the conferees en masse to the French Quarter, but many evangelists ventured in small groups into the land of bars and strip joints.
"It is to most folks, to go down to the French Quarter, is the same as going to all the world," said Jay Strack, president of the evangelists' conference.
However, some French Quarter merchants considered the evangelists out of place amid businesses such as Le Booze Bar and The Orgy.
"I don't think they know how to handle New Orleans. New Orleans is sin and degradation," said Jim Monaghan, owner of Molly's at the Market, a bar.
It was the second straight year Southern Baptists chose a controversial venue for their evangelism efforts. Last year, hundreds marched down the casino strip in Las Vegas.
Beverly Gianna, director of public relations for the Greater New Orleans Tourist Commission, said the city enjoys its reputation as a party town. But she noted that in addition to bars advertising male and female strippers and stores selling erotic T-shirts and ties, the French Quarter is home to 10,000 people and some world-famous restaurants.
"You go there for whatever you want to go there for," she said.
For many Southern Baptists, evangelism was the only reason, Strack said.
"The French Quarter was called years ago, by some of the early sailors that came in, 'the edge of hell.' It's always had that mystique and that attraction," Strack said. All the better to do evangelism in, said Tim Williams, a full-time evangelist from Jacksonville, Fla.
"It's exciting that people love lost people enough to be willing to go out in the heat of Las Vegas, in the heat here, to win lost people to Christ," he said.
Strack said the evangelists planned to distribute 10,000 copies of the New Testament and religious tracts.
Opinions were mixed on Bourbon Street late Wednesday about the effectiveness of the Southern Baptist effort.
"Bourbon Street is the street of sin, known the world over. It never shuts down," said George Murray, a Southern Baptist from Alberta, Ala. "If you reach just one person, it will do some good."
John Laine, a security guard, said things are a lot quieter on Bourbon Street since the Baptists came to town.
"It makes things a lot easier for us," he said.
But for some bar owners, the quiet was a reminder that the Southern Baptists, with their historical opposition to alcohol, were not good for business.
"I think they ought to go back to where they belong," said C.W. Williams, who was serving drinks at one of the many bars along Bourbon Street. "It's one of the worst weeks I've had since December."
Monaghan said bar owners would prefer a group such as automobile dealers. "We're looking for two-fisted hard drinkers."
But Gianna said the Baptist group is a particular economic boost to the city because they visited during the normally slow summer period.
"They might not be the highest ticket items, but they're certainly a boost at this time of year," she said. "We love them anyway."