Atlanta at Crossroads of Sports, Scriptures OLYMPICS MEETS BIBLE BELT

Article excerpt

The Baptists will be handing out gift bags with everything from mints to Scripture verses. The Presbyterians will be organizing a prayer circle, bringing together churches from around the world to pray for peace. And the Jews will offer meals and housing to Orthodox visitors.

From inner-city neighborhoods to leafy suburban enclaves, Atlanta's churches, synagogues, and mosques are preparing to usher in the 1996 Summer Olympics with a dose of Southern "Bible belt" hospitality. The event - which many area churches have anticipated for six years - will offer a remarkable blend of sports, spectators, and Scripture on an unprecedented scale.

The outreach to some 2 million expected visitors and more than 11,000 athletes, is as much a hospitality mission as an effort to spread the Word and possibly fill a few pews. Religious leaders also are hoping that a unity developed among churches continues well after the Olympic torch goes out.

"The role religion will play is going to be very great and probably more so than any other Olympic Games in history because of where we are and the emphasis and positive regard that religion has in this part of the world," says Stephen Overall, a chaplain and director of staff support services at Atlanta's Emory University Hospital.

While the scope of the efforts varies, the audiences are the same:athletes, their families, and spectators.

For example, St. Mark United Methodist Church is one of 10 large congregations along the city's well-traveled Peachtree Street that will play host by dispensing cold water to the heat-weary and offering church tours, concerts, and religious art exhibits.

"We see the Olympics as a grand opportunity to open our doors," says senior minister the Rev. Mike Cordle.

Other planned events include:

*Quest Atlanta '96, a group representing 28 evangelical Christian denominations and 1,500 churches, plans to host families of Olympic athletes, distribute literature, and set up sports leagues that combine Christian values with athletic discipline.

*In the Olympic Village, 37 chaplains from many different faiths will be on hand in khaki uniforms to support athletes, team officials, and others should they desire it. Two religious service centers will be set up for prayer, services, and meditation. …