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Dear Matt:

Who are the Gideons? Are they a cult? How do they get the Bibles into the hotel rooms without anyone seeing them? Are they ninjas or something? Should I be scared of them the way I am scared of the Shriner clowns?

-- Jon Boy, University Heights

The elves claim they saw a Gideon once in Hotel Circle. They said he was so well disguised they had trouble telling him apart from any average person. And now I can say I've talked to a Gideon. They live among us. We need not be afraid.

Gideons International is a 100-year-old organization devoted to distributing copies of the Bible to every nightstand they can find. And every prison, military base, school, hospital, church -- you name it, the Gideons have been there -- in 176 countries in most of the languages you can set in type. They dole out roughly 45 million full Bibles and New Testaments a year. They have 100,000 in Cuban hotels and even place Bibles in American hotels in some Moslem countries. Gideons International started with a small group of evangelical traveling businessmen from Wisconsin, and they seem to have sold the heck out of the idea.

Bibles show up in hotel rooms through "tradition and agreement" with hotel owners. Gideon volunteers are responsible for supplying all facilities in their home areas. They give the hotel staff enough to stock each room, plus a few extras for those of us who carry ours off. "We neither encourage nor discourage the practice [of lifting Gideon Bibles]," says a local member. "But it does say on the book that it's the property of Gideons International." Gideons are nothing if not diplomatic. Keep your head down, seek no publicity is their motto. Nightstands in the Motel 6 chain have no drawers; those thrifty guests are most likely to stash Bibles in their luggage when they leave.

How important are Bibles to the smooth running of today's modern hotel? Before one local Marriott opened, a corporate room-checker toured the place looking for fingerprints on doorknobs and other hospitality violations. Number 7 on his list of deficiencies was "No Bibles in the rooms." An emergency call was placed to the Gideons rep at six in the morning before the opening.

The useful life of each book is about six years, but to keep the Word looking spiffy, they replace the old ones every three years. That requires about 120,000 copies for Las Vegas alone. I'm sure those are very well thumbed and sweaty.

The Gideons have been giving away Bibles since 1908, so they have this Bible-printing thing down pat. They've used the same Philadelphia company for the past 36 years. The printer has four specially built web presses (the kind that print newspapers on continuous rolls of paper) that print one full Bible or 24 New Testaments with every turn of the print drums. Foreign-language editions are usually printed in the country where they're distributed. The average cost (worldwide) for a full Bible is $4.75, the New Testament $1.27. The Gideons foot the bill partly through donations; the Bibles are placed free of charge.

The group is named after (and aspires to be like) Gideon in the book of Judges, who was strictly obedient to the word of God, no matter what. Like carrying a crate of Bibles to the Marriott at six in the morning.

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