Last Sunday evening, about 85 people from Westminster Baptist Church fanned out in the community to deliver videotapes about the life of Jesus to homes in Westminster. They left about 1,850 videotapes on doorknobs. "It went exceedingly well," said the Rev. Larry Steen, pastor of the church.
The church was participating in the Jesus Video Project, a long-term national effort to place a copy of the film "Jesus" in every American home, free of charge. The group's motto is "Renewing America one neighborhood at a time."
In less than a month, nearly 8,000 videotapes have been distributed by 22 churches in Westminster. Program organizers say the Jesus Video Project has given away 10 million videotapes since 1993.
"Our mission is to come alongside and support the outreach work of local churches, individuals, and foundations nationwide that have been called by God to saturate their community with the gospel," Kevin Mascaro, executive director of Jesus Video Project, writes on the organization's Web site, www.JesusVideo.org.
The giveaway is an outreach program of Campus Crusade for Christ, a Christian evangelical organization based in San Bernardino, Calif. In Westminster, the Church of the Nazarene, a Protestant evangelical church, acted as the umbrella organization for local distribution.
Ish Phillips, an area director for Campus Crusade for Christ who lives in Westminster, has been involved in the Jesus Video Project for many years. He said he hasn't received any complaint from people offended by being given the videotape, but he admits there is always that possibility.
"It is not sent as a solicitation," he said. "Yes, there is a card in it you can fill out if you are interested in more information. We just want to get one in every house. People can do whatever they want, throw it out or whatever."
Although Phillips hopes people do not throw it away, that's what Steve Salkin did. The president of the Beth Shalom Congregation said he has no interest in the videotape.
"I did receive one at my house," said Salkin, who said he did not want to discuss the Jesus Video Project. "I live in a community that is predominantly non-Jewish. I'm president of the congregation. I promptly put it in the trash."
Phillips said he would not be daunted by some people's cool reception of the gift.
"We are going to give them out and give them over to God," he said. "Then let him sort it out."
The Jesus Video Project, formed in 1992, got a boost about three years ago when retired Alabama physician Dr. Robert Cosby bought more than a million videotapes from Campus Crusade for Christ. Those videotapes were distributed in Cosby's home state.
In Westminster, Church of the Nazarene member Linda Ege helped direct the Westminster giveaway. "We contacted every church in the Westminster area, every denomination," Ege said. "We told them about the project, by letter or by phone. The churches took it to their boards."
Planning went on months before the videotapes were distributed, Ege says. Meetings were held, team captains were appointed and neighborhood routes were plotted.
"Most of the churches went door to door. Some are only doing a few blocks, others did more," she said.
The churches are charged about $3.50 for each copy of the videotape. "Nobody makes any money out of this," Ege said.
The 1979 videotape, produced by John Heyman, was originally released in theaters by Warner Bros. It depicts the birth, life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The Gospel of Luke, biblical scholars say, focuses on the theme of justice and concern for the poor and downtrodden. The film shows Jesus healing the sick and caring for society's outcasts.
The videotape has also been distributed in Baltimore, though mostly on a smaller scale.
In Baltimore, some churches are giving out the videotape as a Christmas present or as a gift presented to new members, said Nancy Weber, who helped coordinate the Baltimore-area Jesus Video Project. And other churches around the state have been offering the Jesus video since the project began. The group would like to expand the giveaway but has no plans to do so at the moment.
Organizers hope that once people view the 83-minute videotape, they will follow up by going to their local church.
Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, took a benign position on the Jesus Video Project.
"Look, it's a free country," Abramson said. "Anybody's allowed to drop off videos on somebody's doorstep. As long as there is no proselytizing involved, it's innocuous."
Phillips said more Maryland residents may find a copy of "Jesus" on their porch. "First Westminster, Carroll County, then all of Maryland. That's God's business," he said.
The Jesus Video Project can be reached at 800-29-JESUS (800-295-3787) or www.JesusVideo.org.