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Chicago rally for Hammond church. Marchers back Hyles

Chicago rally for Hammond church. Marchers back Hyles

It was a holiday-style parade with a particuarly religious bent. Plenty of

spectacle - but also plenty of Bibles.

Thousands from around the country participated in the National Church Bus

Ministry Parade Saturday in downtown Chicago, which was organized to buck

recent media criticism of the First Baptist Church of Hammond and its bus

ministry.

Buses and floats from Baptist churches in 36 different states wore slogans

including "The Churches of New Jersey Love the Bus Ministry," "Keep the Bibles

Rolling for Jesus" and "We are 100 percent for the bus ministry at First

Baptist Church of Hammond."

Church officials estimated that about 10,000 participated in the parade, far

more than the several hundred that stopped on city sidewalks to watch.

Thousands of children, many of them "bus kids," walked in the parade singing

"Jesus Loves Me" and tossing onlookers carmel candy and pink bubble gum.

Several church workers carried Bibles and marched in silent solidarity.

"The purpose of the parade is to emphasize the importance of bringing people

to church by bus and to show America that (the bus ministry) is wholesome and

healthy," said the Rev. Jack Hyles, pastor at the First Baptist Church of

Hammond. "We want to let people know that we intend to continue (the bus

ministry) and that any attacks against it are false."

In May, allegations surfaced that people with links to First Baptist and

Hyles have abused or sexually assaulted children in seven churches around the

country. Earlier this month, A.V. Ballenger, a First Baptist of Hammond deacon,

was sentenced to five years in prison for molesting a 7-year-old girl in Sunday

school during the summer of 1991.

The parade atmosphere was festive and supportive as 150 multicolored church

buses and 75 floats traveled south on Dearborn Street between Wacker Drive and

Van Buren Street.

More than 300 different churches from South Carolina to Minnesota

participated in the parade, said Ray Young, an assistant pastor at First

Baptist of Hammond and executive vice president of the Hyles-Anderson College

in Schererville.

"We're showing our support for church ministries that reach poor, inner-city

children and their families," he said, adding that 6,000 Baptist churches

across America have bus ministries.

The First Baptist bus ministry, which has been in operation for 32 years,

transports between 7,000 and 10,000 riders to Sunday school in Hammond each

week. Many of the riders are poor, minority children from low-income areas in

Chicago.

"We are showing that we aren't the only church in America that (has a bus

ministry) and that regardless of the criticism, we're going to continue doing

it," Young said.

Pastor James Wigton of the Peoples Baptist Church in Bay City, Mich., said

bus ministries around the nation have often received unfair press coverage.

"We're trying to get more of a positive spotlight on church busing," he

said. "We donate thousands and thousands of dollars and manpower every week to

reach primarily the poor, ghetto-bound, inner-city children. We teach them the

gospel and Christian principles, but we also help clothe and feed them."

Diane Robinson of Gary, a member of First Baptist Church of Hammond, said

her husband rode the Hammond buses as a child. The couple's three children were

in Saturday's parade.

"The bus ministry gives them a chance at a life they wouldn't normally

have," she said. "They learn responsibility, character and loyalty."

Marsha Morris of Hammond, a member of First Baptist since 1978, said the

parade was an "opportunity to show Chicago what we have to offer them."

"We love the bus kids," she said. "This is to prove what we really

are, that we're united and we really believe in the bus ministry - we're proud

of our product."

However, some of the biggest proponents of bus ministries were the riders

themselves.

"I think it was good that they brought us here for the parade," said

15-year-old Rico Hazzard of Elgin, who rode a bus in the parade. "They pick us

up every Sunday, we get to play games on the bus and they really care about us.

They keep you off the streets."

Robby Smith, 16, also of Elgin, agreed.

"I like the way they come pick us up for church," he said. "They saved me

and I got to go into the church and get baptized. It made me feel good. If they

didn't come and get me on Sundays, I'd probably be hanging out with gangs and

stuff."

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