Some leaders of Joplin's black and Jewish communities say they don't feel threatened by the Church of Israel, as long as the members and their ideas remain isolated in Vernon County.
At least one, however, said the church's seclusion doesn't eliminate the threat.
The Rev. Harry Givens, pastor of Joplin's Unity Baptist Church and a leader of the black community, said his interpretation of Scripture disagrees with that of the Church of Israel. "As far as my understanding of the Scripture, the Jews were originally God's chosen people," Givens said. "When Christ died, he died for all. There's no race involved in it." Givens said he doesn't think the Church of Israel represents a direct threat. "I don't have anything against what people want to believe, but in my opinion, it's no threat," he said.
The Rev. Jerry Hodges, pastor of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Joplin, said the Church of Israel could be described as a cult. "I'm concerned that, yes, they are present in the area, but not as a physical threat," Hodges said. "Cults are not very active in reaching other people. They build a place where they can be isolated, and they stay away from other people."
Hodges said he doesn't understand how members of the Church of Israel can call themselves Christians when they exclude people. "I am more concerned about their mind-set," Hodges said. "I would have a problem in how they identify themselves as being Christian. Christ makes salvation available to all." He said when church leaders are not willing to discuss their beliefs in a public setting, that gives him further indication that the organization is a cult.
Paul Teverow, president of Joplin's United Hebrew Congregation, said he is concerned, but he does not feel threatened by the Church of Israel operating in Vernon County. "Obviously it raises some concern," Teverow said. "I can't say I've seen those sort of ideas reflected around here. I don't devote my time to being worried about that kind of nonsense." Teverow said he may be naive, but he doesn't feel any direct threat from the group. "Clearly, one has to be concerned when people who are well-financed are propagating such ideas," he said. "It doesn't seem many people in this area give much credence to that kind of nonsense."
James Fleischaker, a former president of the United Hebrew Congregation, said though the Church of Israel may be isolated, it is not necessarily harmless. "There's always a concern that these people may put their beliefs into effect," Fleischaker said. "If people have these beliefs, then you have to worry about what they might do in response to their beliefs. When you get people that have these kind of beliefs, you really don't know what they might be inclined to do." Fleischaker said the "lone wolf" types who may not be church members, but who subscribe to the same beliefs, may carry out violent acts that they think the church might support. He said groups like the Church of Israel often use the Internet or publications to spread their message of hate. Fleischaker said the fact that people hold such beliefs at all, not simply that they are nearby, is troubling. "It's disturbing that anybody has such views anywhere," Fleischaker said. "These people are not what we would consider sane and rational. I wouldn't wish them on anybody."