Separation of church & play gets smudged

New York Daily News/August 7, 2007
By Denise Romano

An Evangelical Christian group is causing a stir in Park Slope playgrounds by proselytizing young children using methods that irk some parents.

"What they do at every playground is a little different," said Amelia Costigan, a mother of 4-year-old twins.

"They have concerts, arts and crafts and then they hand out candy and Wonderbooks to the kids with no permission from parents," she said, noting that Wonderbooks tell stories of Jesus.

But the organizers of the events, Child Evangelism Fellowship, or C.E.F., said its volunteers follow strict guidelines to get parental permission first. C.E.F is an international group based in Missouri that encompasses different denominations. Its mission is to teach the Gospel to children and get them involved in local churches.

Costigan said she wouldn't mind if the group handed out literature outside the gate but that they should steer clear of kids.

"They pull the kids aside and ask them, 'Do you know who Jesus Christ is? Is he your personal Savior?'" she said. "It's just weird and creepy."

They also photograph and take video of children during these park events, also without parental permission, Costigan said.

But the Rev. Michael Velardo of the C.E.F. and the Rev. John Saldanha, the pastor of the Park Slop church that invited the C.E.F. for the events, said volunteers never proselytize to children without their parents' permission.

"Parents are always involved in what we do. We are extremely careful and cautious," Velardo said, noting that everyone in the group goes through intensive training to handle situations like these.

But another parent from South Park Slope begged to differ, suggesting the group's left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing.

"They also target younger immigrant children, as young as 2 years old," said Beth, who did not want her full name used.

Group members approach them so that their non-English speaking parents can't object effectively, she said.

"Men we did not know had little girls in their laps, preaching about Jesus and asking for names and addresses so they could send them postcards," Beth said. "This is a big problem for me."

But Saldanha, the pastor of Christ Community Church in Park Slope, said in all cases, the volunteers had permission. "We did not approach any children. We approached the parents," he said. Furthermore, Saldanha gave his business card to two women who objected in the park, inviting them to give feedback. "But they didn't come to us," Saldanha said.

Parks Department officials said that the C.E.F. has a right to be there, but within reason.

"Freedom of speech allows the distribution of literature and speaking to parkgoers about religion," said agency spokesman Philip Abramson.

"However, if one's actions go as far as to constitute harassment, then [Parks] officers may be called to resolve the dispute," he said.

Permits are needed if events are to take place in certain sections of parks and if there are more than 20 people attending.

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