Southern Baptists Take Up Attempt to Diversify

ATLANTA -- The Southern Baptists open their annual convention today, and the agenda includes yet another attempt by their leaders to distance the nation's largest Protestant denomination from its segregationist past.

The convention's president, the Rev. Paige Patterson, is expected to propose that the denomination diversify and broaden its appeal in inner cities by forming multi-ethnic congregations from Boston to Seattle.

"I don't know what I can do to change things 100 years ago," said the Rev. Phil Roberts of the convention's North American Mission Board. "I do know what I can do now: Take the Gospel and reach out and minister to all the city."

That would mark a dramatic shift for a church whose 16 million members live mostly in suburbs, small towns and rural areas.

The denomination was formed in 1845 by rural whites who insisted on their right to own slaves.

During the civil rights era, blacks were not welcome in most Southern Baptist churches.

Four years ago, the denomination apologized to blacks for 150 years of tolerating racism.

The new outreach plan is less about reconciliation than growth, said the Rev. David Key, director of Baptist Studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology.

"The Southern Baptists have not been successful in an urban setting," he said. "They want to be more than a white Southern rural denomination."

Overall, Southern Baptists are hoping for an end to the battles between conservatives and moderates of recent years, and they said they don't expect more grand announcements, like the 1997 Disney boycott or the decision to target Jews for proselytizing.

Patterson, who helped engineer a conservative resurgence in the convention, is expected to be reelected without opposition. Many moderates are sitting this convention out.

During a radio show yesterday, Paige said President Clinton's church should discipline him for calling for the observance of Gay and Lesbian Pride Month.

Rock Climber, 22, Killed In Yosemite Boulder Crash

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. -- A 22-year-old rock climber died and three other visitors were injured when a massive boulder sheared off the granite cliffs of California's Yosemite National Park and crashed to the valley floor, park officials said.

Park rangers said the slide Sunday night sent rocky debris hurtling 2,000 feet down steep slopes near the Glacier Point apron, a popular climbing spot in Yosemite, a vast, scenic wilderness area 150 miles east of San Francisco.

Park spokesman Scott Gediman said four climbers were preparing to ascend the slope when the boulder sheared off the rocky face above, triggering a rock slide.

Peter Terbush of Gunnison, Colo., was killed in the fall, park officials said. Terbush, a student at Western State College of Colorado, in Gunnison, was an experienced rock climber, park officials said. Three other climbers were treated for minor injuries and released.

The rock slide death was the first in Yosemite since 1996, when a visitor was crushed beneath a tree when a granite slab some 400 feet wide toppled from Glacier Point, flattening thousands of trees and sending thousands of tons of stone tumbling to the valley floor.