Harvesting 'Fields Of Faith': Christian Athletes Proselytize Students At Public Schools

Growing up in Ohio, I was pretty oblivious to the fact that students at my high school were anything but Christian. I just assumed that everyone was but me.

That's because students met for Bible studies club, or some of my friends would talk about their church's youth group. The students who weren't Christian never really brought up religion at all.

Looking back, I realize now that I actually went to high school with a slightly more diverse crowd than I knew. I wish I had known that then – I would have felt a little less like an outcast.

That's why when I hear about programs like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes' "Fields of Faith," I feel for the students of minority religions or no religion that it excludes – and targets for evangelism.

According to the program's Web site, "Fields of Faith is a peer-to-peer ministry event. Students invite their own classmates and teammates to hear fellow students share their testimonies, be challenged to read the Word of God and follow Jesus Christ. An athletic field provides a neutral, interdenominational rally point where a community can come together."

These after-school events are happening at public schools all around the country. The Naples News just reported on the one at a local Florida high school's football field this week.

"It is a time to encourage each other and to encourage faith on campus," Gretchen Shelton, executive director of the Fellowship for Christian Athletes of Southwest Florida, told the newspaper. "Tonight is not about what church you go to or about what school you go to.... Statistics say we are losing the next generation. We are here tonight to take them back."

A South Carolina newspaper covered another "Fields of Faith" service at Manning High School's Ramsey Stadium last week in Manning, S.C.

Kay Young, the faculty sponsor of the Manning High chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, apparently assisted in putting things together.

"We will have different children reading Scriptures and giving testimonies," she told the newspaper last week. "We are not dictating to these kids what to read. The kids volunteer to do this."

That may be true, but it still raises constitutional questions.

Actually, these evangelistic rallies bring a lot of questions to my mind. Do the kids know that an outside organization is planning this, or do they think school officials are? It could be confusing, considering some faculty members, such as Young, seem to be actively planning and advocating for the event.

Would other religious and non-religious organizations also have access to the football stadium after hours? Does the school rent the space to this organization, or is it free? Would it be free to everyone?

And lastly, why does the event even need to be held at the school?

I'm sure there are many other places in the community that are not school-related where the rally could go on. It's almost like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes wants students to think it's a school-related event.

One rabbi in Naples brought up some good points in an opinion column he wrote for the Naples News this week.

"When we do not have a clear separation of church and state in our public schools," Rabbi James H. Perman wrote, "minority students such as Jewish teenagers in my community are made to feel alienated and excluded in their own school. By the same token, majority students do not receive an accurate or realistic picture of the world.

"Students do need to learn about different religions," he continued. "They live in a very complex world. A program such as this one, however, distorts their view of the world because it oversimplifies it. It makes it seem that the whole world is Christian. Yet we know that this is not the case, not even here in our own country."

He concludes: "All of our children deserve to be comfortable in public school. It is not a favor to them; it is their right. In this country, the majority rules, but the minority is protected. That's the beauty of the American way, our Constitution and the very values we hold so dear."

I'm sure Rabbi Perman is not alone in feeling uncomfortable with this program, especially considering the express mission of "Fields of Faith" is to "take back" the next generation for evangelical Christianity.

Students attending public schools should never feel that they must conform to a particular faith to be accepted. And public school administrators and faculty should not plan, promote or encourage attendance at an activity that exists to proselytize students.

But beyond these constitutional concerns, the rabbi is right about something else. Our schools should be exposing our youngsters to a broader picture of the world. It would do our youth a whole lot of good to realize that there is more than one belief system in this country. I know it would have done a lot of good for me.