Plan to hand out 250,000 Bibles

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Tears spring to Suzonne Smith's eyes when she talks about her effort to distribute Pittsburgh-themed New Testaments to Allegheny County residents.

"It's our hope that God's word will transform and change lives and the whole city will be impacted," said the Sewickley resident, who with her husband, Tom, is co-chair of CityReachers Pittsburgh.

If all goes according to plan, on Sept. 7 when Allegheny County subscribers to the Post-Gazette unwrap their Sunday paper, they will find a New Testament in an advertising pouch like those used for sample soaps or cereals.

The New International Version translation will have a front cover showing the Golden Triangle, a back cover photograph of Steelers kneeling in prayer and will include testimonies of well-known Pittsburghers. The goal is to reach 250,000 subscribers in Allegheny County and some border communities. If they raise enough money, they would like to add deliveries to 150,000 non-subscribers.

Mrs. Smith knows that many recipients already own Bibles, but believes the books are often unread because they look old, dark and forbidding. The "Our City, God's Word" New Testament is designed to intrigue people enough to open it and read. It's intended as much for lapsed or lackadaisical Christians as for non-Christians.

"So many Christians don't know God's word. We can't hear his voice if we're not reading his love letters to us," she said.

Pittsburgh will be the sixth city for CityReachers, a program of the International Bible Society based in Colorado Springs. After a pilot project there in 2004, the Bible society hired the Barna Research Group to measure its impact.

Based on the Barna findings, Pittsburgh organizers project that a distribution of 400,000 here would result in 36,400 people reading the Bible more often or for the first time; 19,809 making a commitment or recommitment to the Christian faith; 11.207 attending church more often; and 4,385 attending for the first time.

The Rev. Donald Dawson, director of the World Mission Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, believes those are reasonable projections.

"It should make a difference to a significant percentage of people," he said. "Every time God's word is shared, there is gain for the kingdom."

Last month, Philadelphia had an initial distribution of 140,000 New Testaments in Philadelphia and Chester counties. There are plans to distribute another 260,000 in Montgomery, Bucks and Delaware counties in November. Although it was initiated by Protestants, the Catholic archdiocese joined in the effort, as has the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

"The response has been 100 percent positive," said Kevin Mulligan, associate director for communications for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Organizers say it costs $2.50 for each New Testament delivered -- $2 for the book itself and 50 cents for delivery. So far they have raised $350,000, including large gifts from the Thomas J. and Sandra Usher Foundation and the Wiegand Morning Star Foundation, as well as $16,000 from a radiothon on WORD-FM. But they are well shy of the $625,000 needed for a distribution of 250,000 households. The deadline for fund raising to print the New Testaments is May 31.

Tom Smith would like to print enough to do additional distributions through colleges and hotels.

"You leave the Gideon Bible in the drawer but you can take this with you," he said......

CityReachers has used newspapers for delivery in part because it's less expensive than mailing, but also because it's seen as away to pique the interest of people who like to read.

"It's a very effective way of reaching people you wouldn't necessarily reach in a door-to-door campaign," said Mark Rader, director for CityReachers at the International Bible Society.

He acknowledged that some recipients won't want to read it no matter what's on the cover. He asks that those people not throw out the New Testament.

"We would hope that they would give it to somebody that they think might be interested or pass it to their nearest local church," he said.

To design the Pittsburgh New Testament, Mr. Rader consulted extensively with local organizers to determine what would make the book most interesting. It includes innovations not done in other cities, such as larger type for older eyes and a "spiritual history" of Pittsburgh that reviews the Christian renewal movement.

The steering committee includes high-profile local religious figures, including the Rev. Rock Dillaman, of Allegheny Center Alliance Church; John Stahl-Wert, of the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation; Bishop Robert Duncan, of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh; the Rev. Doug Portz, acting interim pastor of Pittsburgh Presbytery; Bishop Joseph Garlington, of Covenant Church of Pittsburgh in Wilkinsburg; and Bishop David Zubik, of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Due to the high Catholic demographic in Pittsburgh, organizers considered Catholic participation crucial and approached Bishop Zubik even before his formal installation in September.

He responded that it was perfect timing because the distribution comes just before Catholic bishops from around the world will meet in Rome to discuss ways to encourage Catholics to study the Bible.

For more information see www.cityreacherspittsburgh.com.


Ann Rodgers can be reached at arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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