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City of God and Mickey

Orlando: In the beginning was the Mouse. But now Christian groups and businesses are beginning to create an economic enclave built around another kingdom.

Published May 22, 2003

ORLANDO - People know Orlando for a lot of things: water slides, pirate dinner shows, Ripley's Believe It or Not, kitschy attractions alongside snooty shopping centers and, of course, Mickey.

But there's another side to Orlando. The holy side.

Most tourists might not have noticed, and the people tallying tourist stops are just beginning to, but the Orlando area quietly has become a headquarters for at least 10 major national and international Christian organizations.

Wycliffe Bible Translators, a nonprofit organization that translates the Bible into many languages, recently settled into its national facility, near Highway 417 and within view of Campus Crusade for Christ. Within the same area code is a handful of other Christian businesses and organizations: the New Tribes Mission, Pioneers USA, Goad International, Great Commission Ministries, Man in the Mirror and Strang Communications.

Some open themselves to the public, such as Wycliffe's WordSpring Discovery Center museum and the Holy Land Experience theme park. The tourism industry sees a chance to create a new segment of the travel market: faith-based tourism. "If tour operators can catch this vision," says WordSpring's general manager, Michael Currier.

A family plans a weekend getaway. It spends one day at Disney World or Universal Studios. It stops by the Holy Land Experience and WordSpring on the next.

Nancy Hahn Bono, vice president of travel industry marketing for the Orlando/Orange County Convention Center & Visitors Bureau, sees the vision.

The religious angle is somewhat new for Orlando, she says: "We've never really had this to offer before."

The city is evolving, though. The major theme parks regularly host Christian concerts that draw thousands. "The Orlando that you may have thought about a few years ago is different today," Bono says.

Wycliffe Bible Translators moved to Orlando about three years ago to build a $40-million facility with offices, a museum, a gift shop, a cafe and conference rooms. The facility was completed last fall.

Why Orlando? Economics.

Wycliffe's national facility had been in Huntington Beach, Calif. (Wycliffe's international headquarters is in Dallas.) New initiatives had called for expansion, but rebuilding in California was too costly.

Wycliffe leaders called the people at Campus Crusade for Christ, an international ministry with a focus on college students. The organization of about 1,000 employees also had moved from California a decade ago.

The Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission had recruited Campus Crusade, hoping to stimulate the economy by making the city a hub for more international headquarters. Rick Tesch, then the commission's president, heard that Campus Crusade was looking for a new site and that executives were in town for a meeting. Figuring Campus Crusade to be a "well-regarded, well-respected organization," Tesch lobbied hard, taking the organization's former president, Bill Bright, on a helicopter tour of the city. He and other government staffers, bankers and real estate experts also flew to San Bernardino, Calif., to make their pitch.

Orlando has an airport with a good reputation, a plus for international missionaries.

Homeschooling is popular in Orlando, with an organized network of support. That appeals to many Christian families that increasingly are teaching their children themselves.

And, Tesch said, Orlando has a strong ecumenical network of churches and a Christian organization, the Greater Orlando Leadership Foundation, that teaches leadership skills and values to business owners and community leaders.

Campus Crusade selected Orlando from about 30 cities, said Tesch, now Campus Crusade's director of community relations. The state and local governments kicked in money to upgrade roads surrounding what is now a 290,000-square-foot site of offices and support buildings.

Wycliffe was impressed with Orlando as well and brought along its 250 to 300 workers.

Wycliffe and Campus Crusade are part of a religious exodus from California that has taken place in recent years. Ministry groups that depend on private donations are strapped to support themselves in a region where a gallon of milk can cost $4. One cost-of-living calculator on the Web site for the National Association of Realtors estimated that a homeowner who makes $100,000 in Huntington Beach would only have to make $56,134 in Orlando to have a comparable lifestyle.

Focus on the Family, an organization headed by author and preacher James Dobson, left Pomona, Calif., 12 years ago. The group funded a study of cities, measuring quality-of-life indexes and workforce statistics. Orlando was being considered for a time, said Steve Kenney, Focus on the Family's director of community relations. But Colorado Springs won after a civic foundation eager to reinvigorate Colorado's economy offered a $4-million incentive for land purchases. Focus on the Family now sits on 82 acres in a city known for Pike's Peak.

One move by a big organization such as Focus on the Family, with 1,300 employees, can create a domino effect. When Focus on the Family arrived, five or six national and international ministries were based in Colorado Springs, Kenney said. Soon, other groups were looking to move or to establish themselves. Some came from California, others from elsewhere. Several that didn't have the resources to do their own research called Focus on the Family and asked to see what it had done.

Today, more than 110 Christian ministries are in Colorado Springs. A number of them are one- or two-person operations. Wheaton, Ill., and Dallas are also known as Christian ministry hubs.

Orlando is different from Colorado Springs, home of the Air Force Academy; sports-crazed Dallas; and quiet Wheaton, whose main tourist attraction is the Cosley Animal Farm.

Orlando is known for frivolity. Does its image have room for things sacred?

Bono, from the visitors bureau, says yes. Religious venues broaden Orlando's appeal, she says, and there's always room for that.

Most Christian organizations headquartered in Orlando are business facilities, not tourist attractions. But some, such as Campus Crusade, give daily tours. The Holy Land Experience is a theme park in which actors recreate biblical scenes.

Wycliffe Bible Translators also gives tours, revealing a side of the Gospel that many know little about. Wycliffe estimates that about 3,000 of the world's 6,000 languages have no written Bible and speakers have not been exposed to the story of Jesus.

The group sends missionaries to far-off regions, sometimes tribal areas with fewer than 50 people. The missionaries' task is to learn the native language and translate the Bible into it, a process that can take a dozen years or more. Some of the languages have no written form, so missionaries must first help the natives create an alphabet. Translating the Bible into a group's native language lets the people know that the Bible is for them, too, said Currier, WordSpring's general manager.

John and Bonnie Nystrom, who have a home in Seminole, have worked with Wycliffe for two decades. They moved to Papua New Guinea in 1987 and have lived there off and on since, raising their two children there. John Nystrom learned the Arop language, used by people in a village of the same name. He helped train the Arop people in translation techniques. The Book of Mark has been translated into the Arop language, as well as Genesis, which was translated by natives and another Wycliffe worker before the Nystroms arrived. The couple are working with natives to translate the Christmas story of Jesus' birth into Arop and other bush languages, John Nystrom said while on furlough in Seminole. The couple plan to return to Papua New Guinea in July.

In Orlando, Wycliffe's WordSpring museum is free to the public. On a recent day, the tour guide moved past an oversized Bible at the entrance, leading about two dozen homeschooled students and parents to a row of mannequins dressed in garb of the lands they represent: Japan, South Asia, Papua New Guinea, Ghana.

Voices speaking foreign languages flow through speakers, each reciting John 3:16 in a native tongue: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son . . ."

Throughout the day, school and church groups, couples and college students play cultural games that teach the do's and don'ts in certain parts of the world. They guess which Bible translations came first. They watch a movie about Wycliffe's efforts and learn the organization's translation techniques. They put on headphones and hear voices speaking in various tongues. One language, Mazateco, is whistled.

"It's fun to learn all about this," says 11-year-old Elizabeth Schepler, playing an interactive video.

Her father, Jeff Schepler, is the manager of donor services for Wycliffe. Brenda Schepler homeschools the couple's children. The Scheplers got involved in Wycliffe about 12 years ago, after someone totaled their car in an accident. A few days later, an anonymous envelope arrived by mail with 30 $100 bills and a note encouraging the Scheplers to go into mission work of some kind. As it was, Brenda Schepler had recently heard a radio program about an organization called Wycliffe that needed teachers.

The couple added the $3,000 to $2,000 they got from the insurance company, bought a four-door Cutlass for $5,034 and prayed for direction. They learned more about Wycliffe and decided to work for the organization.

They sold their home in Lincoln, Neb. Jeff Schepler quit his job as vice president and bookkeeper of a small bank. They moved to Wycliffe's world headquarters in Dallas for training and later to the national headquarters in Huntington Beach, where they rented a place to live.

They haven't regretted following the organization to Florida. For the first time since they were in Lincoln, the couple was able to afford a house, in St. Cloud, just outside Orlando.

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