PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — An evangelical Christian group is trying to convert children as young as five at Portland apartment pools, public parks and dozens of other gathering spots this summer — a campaign that's got hundreds of parents upset.
They've banded together in recent weeks to warn parents about the Child Evangelism Fellowship's Good News Club, buying a full-page ad in the local alternative weekly to highlight the group's tactics.
"They pretend to be a mainstream Christian Bible study when in fact they're a very old school fundamentalist sect," said Kaye Schmitt, an organizer with Protect Portland Children, which takes issue with the group's message and the way it's delivering it.
"Parents should know that out-of-state evangelical fundamentalists are in the Portland area this week, trying to convert children as young as five-years-old, using misleading tactics," said Stacey Jochimsen, another Protect Portland Children member.
CEF says Protect Portland Children is a shadow group run by atheists who seek to dismantle Christian outreach. In an email to KATU, group member Robert Aughenbaugh denied those claims, saying:
"Protect Portland Children is a grassroots coalition or concerned parents, grandparents and citizens. We have members of all faiths and belief systems. Many of our supporters are Christians.
One prominent local pastor, Rev. Chuck Currie, wrote on our Facebook page:
"As a minister in the United Church of Christ, I have deep concerns about the Good News Club and the message it spreads. I appreciate your work."
The members of Protect Portland Children launched a Facebook page last month to warn parents about the evangelical group. As of Wednesday evening, the group had close to 800 "likes."
A press release from the same opposition group, sent to the On Your Side Investigators Wednesday, said the Good News Club curriculum is "not the Jesus-loves-you mainstream Christianity that parents might expect."
They stated, the "curriculum teaches young children that they're born sinners, bound for eternity in hell unless they obey the club's teachings."
They also said, "The curriculum contains over 5,000 references to sin, 1000 references to hell and punishment, 1000 references to obedience, and only one reference to the golden rule."
Esteves defended Child Evangelism Fellowship's teachings.
"We don't use any of the schemes and high-pressure tactics that we're accused of. Nothing could be further from the truth," CEF's vice president Moises Esteves told the Associated Press.
Esteves also told KATU, "We don't convert anybody because God is the one who is in the business of converting. If a child is going to place their faith in Christ, that's between them and God," Esteves said.
He continued, "We're a Christian organization and we teach the Bible to children - that's who we are. It's the same message of the gospel that's been taught for 2,000 years, that God loves everyone, that God sent Christ as Savior to the world."
Esteves, along with Good News Across American program manager John Luck, said the organization partnered with more than 30 Bible-believing churches in Portland.
"We're reaching out to this community and coming alongside this church and helping them reach out to their community to share the message of the gospel," Luck said.
Luck said the local churches sent out fliers as well as knocked on doors in the community to invite people and their children to the five-day camps. Luck said parents can - and do - take part but said they don't always attend. KATU did not see any parents in attendance at the camp on Wednesday. The group also said permission slips are not required for the camps during the summer.
Esteves' group told the Associated Press that it decided to hold its annual summer mission program in Portland because of the area's irreligious leanings. Esteves backed off that claim in an interview with KATU and instead said that the Good News Club teaches hundreds of kids in cities all over the country.
"We actually have 400 offices in the USA," Esteves said. "We have a ministry in Portland. The ministry has been here since the early 50s."
Trying to reach young people in Oregon presents the group with two strongly secular demographics.
Gallup polls in 2008 and 2012 have consistently indicated that Oregon is among the least religious states in the country, with one of the fewest populations identifying themselves as "very religious."
Furthermore, focusing on young people opens the group up to an increasingly irreligious demographic. Millennials, or those born in or after the early 1980s, are the least religious generation in U.S. history, according to Pew Research.
CEF has encountered controversy before.
It won a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court case that decided they could hold chapter meetings on school grounds.
The organization was also the subject of a critical book that asserts the group advances a fundamentalist agenda and uses public spaces like schools to make children believe such views are endorsed by authority figures.
In schools, the group obtains permission slips to speak with children, but it is not required to do so in public spaces.
CEF spent last week training its volunteers, Esteves said, and will span out through the area this week trying to reach children.
"We do teach that children are sinners, but we're not nasty about it," Esteves told the AP. "If we were nasty about it, the kids wouldn't come back." He said that they don't try to coerce the children, as "coercion leads to false conversion."
He told KATU they teach a "wonderful message that children and parents both welcome."
At a park on Wednesday, the group laid out a tarp for children. A pair of volunteers led a small group of kids through Bible verses and songs that praised a Christian god.
"For God who loves the world," they sang, "that he gave his only begotten son."
Mia Marceau, a mother of two in the Portland suburb of Vancouver, Washington, told the Associated Press she was intrigued when the group approached her apartment complex pool last week. She said she, too, believes in Jesus Christ.
Within a few hours, however, she didn't like what the group was telling her 8-year-old son and his friends: They were headed to hell, needed to convert their friends and were duty-bound to raise money for the organization.
"I raised a free thinker," she said. "He didn't buy in. All of a sudden, he's having arguments with his friends over salvation."