By Peggy Reisser-Winburne — Eleven-year-old Andrew Felsburg and his buddies finished a splashy water balloon toss and polished off ice cream sandwiches last Sunday afternoon at a campground in Cordova. Then, it was time for a prayer as the Royal Ambassadors of Faith Baptist Church in Bartlett wrapped up their last outing of the season.
Royal Ambassadors, a Southern Baptist missions program for boys in grades 1-6, has been around for 105 years. Royal Ambassadors go camping, learn outdoor skills, do community service work and participate in achievement programs to earn awards and patches like Scout merit badges. But even an 11-year-old knows there is more to the message. “We read about people from other countries,” Andrew said.
Faith-based, character-building boys programs such as the Royal Ambassadors, the Royal Rangers of the Assemblies of God, and the Catholic Church’s Columbian Squires have been getting more attention since the May 23 vote by the Boy Scouts of America to allow gay Scouts in its ranks.
“We definitely have had more interest since they passed their vote about a week ago,” said Julie Walters, corporate communications leader for the WMU (Woman’s Missionary Union) in Birmingham, Ala., which oversees the Royal Ambassadors program in more than 3,000 Southern
Baptist churches across the country and the Challengers program for boys in grades 7-12.
Next week, the Southern Baptist Convention, with its 50,000 churches in America and more than 16 million members, is expected to direct member churches away from the BSA at its annual meeting in Houston.
Danny Sinquefield is senior pastor at Faith Baptist Church near the Wolfchase area, where Royal Ambassadors and Boy Scouts have coexisted and thrived. A few boys are in both groups, but the majority of the Scouts are not church members, he said. RAs meet Sunday afternoons; Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts meet on Monday evenings.
That picture may change.
“We are beginning a conversation with our local church leadership about our response to the new standards that the Boy Scouts are embracing about sexual orientation being allowed,” Sinquefield said.
“I think it will force families to make a decision to have to walk away from a very respectable, time-honored organization,” said Sinquefield, a former Boy Scout. “It’s sad they are putting Christian families in a bind and putting churches that host this organization in a bind. Because it’s going to come down to whether we continue to host and support any organization that has conflicting values with the Biblical standard of the family.”
Affiliation with faith-based groups, like the Southern Baptists, has been key to the Boy Scouts of America throughout its more than 100-year history. Seventy percent of the 100,000 scouting units are chartered to faith-based groups, according to the BSA. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the most, followed by the United Methodist Church and the Catholic Church.
Churches often have both Boy Scout troops and faith-specific groups, like RAs and Royal Rangers.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reaffirmed its commitment to work with the BSA, saying, “Sexual orientation has not previously been — and is not now — a disqualifying factor for boys who want to join Latter-day Saint Scout troops. Willingness to abide by standards of behavior continues to be our compelling interest.”
The National Catholic Committee on Scouting said it hopes to maintain its relationship with BSA, is studying the effects of the new policy and “will work within the teachings of our Catholic faith and with the various local bishops and their diocesan scouting committees.”
The Assemblies of God said it “regrets” the BSA policy change. “We believe the BSA policy change will lead to a mass exodus from the Boy Scout program, as Assemblies of God and many other churches can no longer support groups that are part of an organization allowing members who are openly homosexual.” The church offered its Royal Rangers program for K-12 boys as a “positive alternative.”
Benjamin Forehand, the children’s pastor at Raleigh Assembly of God Church, oversees the 30- to 40-member Royal Rangers program there. “I think some people might be more attracted to bring their kids by the Royal Rangers program,” he said. “Have I personally seen a difference in the last month? No, not really.”
He said the program is a ministry to boys of all backgrounds and cultures. “We teach them how to camp, we teach them how to shoot rifles the faith way, we teach them how to cook and all that kind of stuff,” he said, “but more than that, we teach them the word of God, and we’re a ministry.”
The Knights of Columbus sponsor the Columbian Squires at Church of the Incarnation in Collierville. The group is part of an international organization, which has the motto “Esto Dignus” or “Be Worthy,” and was founded in 1925 for Catholic boys ages 10-18.
Michael Pratt, chief counselor for the Incarnation group, said in some ways it is similar to Boy Scouts. “I think it is, in the form of character building, the focus on volunteerism, leadership building, just basic giving back to society and socializing and being amongst your peers,” he said. Members work through five levels as they build character.
Some of the roughly 25-30 members at Incarnation also belong to the Boy Scout troop there, Pratt said. So far, he hasn’t seen an increase in requests for membership in his group. “We’re having an investiture, a ceremony to welcome in new Squires,” he said. “It might be interesting to see if we might get a few more.”
In recent days, both negative calls and positive feedback have come into the local Chickasaw Council of the BSA, said Phillip Shipley, director of field services. The Council has 546 Boy Scout troops, Cub Scout packs, Venture crews and Explorer posts and represents about 16,600 youths in 17 counties in the Mid-South, he said.
“The vote was done by volunteers across the nation,” Shipley said. “We are honoring that vote, and we are staying positive and moving forward.”
For more information about the Boy Scouts of America and faith-based alternative programs for boys:
Royal Ambassadors: wmu.com/ra
Royal Rangers: royalrangers.com
Columbian Squires: kofc.org
Chickasaw Council, Boy Scouts of America: chickasaw.org