Southern Hospitality Northerners Feel at Home with Baptists

Article excerpt

Byline: Matthew Nickerson Daily Herald Staff Writer

Kathy Burke is a Southern Baptist in spite of herself.

The Glen Ellyn woman was brought up Roman Catholic, has lived north of the Mason-Dixon line almost her whole life, and previously believed unflattering stereotypes about the conservative Protestant denomination.

"I hated them," the 47-year-old woman said. "I thought they were phony believers, Bible thumping."

But after her teenage brother was killed in an accident, she underwent a spiritual journey, and found her way to Glenfield Baptist Church in Glen Ellyn. It's a Southern Baptist congregation where she met people she considers "true believers."

Burke's background may seem unusual for a Southern Baptist.

But Glenfield is full of people like Burke: Northerners who converted to the Southern Baptist denomination.

Two-thirds of the church's families are from outside the South. Most of them came to the Southern Baptist church from another religious background.

It wasn't always like that.

Glenfield, located across from College of DuPage on Lambert Road, was founded in 1962 with a 100 percent Southern congregation, according to Ben Rizer, a retired Lisle man who is the Sunday school director.

The church was a haven for Southern corporate transferees, but Glenfield leaders started bringing in native Midwesterners, people who weren't likely to move back to Little Rock, Ark., or Jackson, Miss., after a couple of years.

Now, during services in the red brick building, the Lord is referred to as both "Gad" in flat Chicago dialect and "Gaw-ud" in richer Southern tones.

Glenfield is a place, Rizer said, for "all who believe like we do."

Those beliefs - rock-solid but not legalistic - are what drew Burke, the ex-Catholic, to Glenfield.

The death of Burke's brother led her to an experience that she describes as meeting the son of God, which sent her looking for a church where others knew Jesus Christ as she did.

One church that held no interest for her was the Southern Baptist denomination, to which her grandmother belonged.

Burke had been turned off after hearing her grandmother criticize Catholics for not reading the Bible, even though she was never seen cracking the good book herself.

Burke was taken by her sister-in-law to Glenfield, not knowing what sort of church it was.

"The pastor's wife sang a song," Burke recalled. "I burst out crying, and I knew that she knew what I knew."

Converts like Burke have triggered an explosion of Southern Baptist churches in the Chicago area and other nontraditional locales.

The sect was virtually nonexistent here until the 1950s, but now there are 200 Southern Baptist churches in Cook and DuPage counties, including ones in Naperville, Lombard, Bloomingdale, West Chicago, Bartlett, Addison and Clarendon Hills.

Southern Baptists make up America's largest Protestant denomination, with 15 million members. They include, incidentally, Billy Graham and Bill Clinton.

According to Keith Draper, new church specialist with the Chicago Metropolitan Baptist Association, Southern Baptists have grown far beyond their rural, Southern roots.

The image of a minister with blow-dried hair, backed by a say-amen gospel choir, is an outmoded one, he said. …