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Christian Men Hold Huge Rally on D.C. Mall

Religion: Promise Keepers crowd reaches historic proportions in day of prayer and pledges. Fundamentalists stream in from across the country for multiracial gathering.

October 05, 1997|JAMES RISEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The great wave of Christian fundamentalism that has been building in small towns and cities across America for more than a decade surged into the nation's capital Saturday as the evangelical men's movement called Promise Keepers staged one of the largest religious rallies in the history of the United States.

A crowd that appeared to number well over half a million people packed the Mall from the Capitol to the Washington Monument and beyond for six hours of hymns, prayer, repentance and pledges to cleanse their personal lives, rededicate themselves to their families and work for racial reconciliation.

The gathering, which appeared to exceed in size any previous rally or assemblage in Washington, contained large numbers of blacks and other minorities, as well as wives and other women supporting the movement. And in keeping with the day's emphasis on ethnic reconciliation, the huge podium just west of the Capitol dome was filled with blacks, Latinos, Asians, native Americans and Messianic Jews, or Jews for Jesus.

Like the Promise Keepers movement itself, however, the crowd was composed predominantly of white men.

The Promise Keepers founder, former University of Colorado football coach William McCartney, said his group focused on men because "men have been irresponsible. Men have not stood strong for their convictions. Men have not been men of their word. The reason we see a downward spiral in morality in this nation is because the men of God have not stood together."

In an appearance near the end of the rally, McCartney called upon the crowd to heal the racial divide in America and bring others to Jesus. "We want you to bring the lost," he exhorted with the zeal he once used to mold championship football teams. "We want you to bring the lukewarm. . . . Go out and bring them."

The U.S. Park Police and National Park Service, stung by the controversy that followed their relatively low crowd estimates for the Million Man March that drew hundreds of thousands of black men to Washington in October 1995, refused to offer official crowd estimates for Saturday's event.

But the crowd seemed at least comparable to, and by some estimates larger than, the crowd assembled during the Million Man March. And it seemed to surpass that at the civil rights rally led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 or the Vietnam Moratorium antiwar protest in 1969.

For their part, Promise Keepers officials insisted that they were not overly concerned about crowd size. "It's not that we don't care how many are here, but we care more about what is in their hearts," said Steve Ruppe, director of public relations for Promise Keepers.

The sheer scale of the crowd seemed to overwhelm many of the men who had come from around the country, often traveling in caravans of buses from their local churches.

"I think it's fantastic to see this many men--you could not get this many people if it was not for the Lord," said Don Tuinstra, a 45-year-old father of three from Zeeland, Mich. After arriving in Washington by bus with other members of his small evangelical church, Tuinstra camped out overnight in a private Christian school in suburban Maryland before attending Saturday's event.

"I think a lot of men will go home with a renewal of their hearts," he said. "I think they will go home on fire for the Lord."

Others who had been skeptical of whether the Promise Keepers movement would be exploited for political purposes--as McCartney had insisted it would not--said they were pleased that the focus of Saturday's rally was kept on spiritual renewal.

"I was skeptical at first because these kinds of things have often been used for political ends, but this really is different," said Richard Moore, an evangelical pastor from Howard City, Mich.

Promise Keepers has come under fire from feminists and other groups who charge that its call for men to take control of their households is a thinly veiled effort to force women to give up their rights and submit to traditional male authority. And a small number of women's groups and others protested peacefully Saturday near the rally.

The crowd was extraordinarily peaceable, especially considering its size. District of Columbia and U.S. Park Police arrested 24 people for illegal vending--chiefly food and T-shirts--and two arrests were made for disorderly conduct, but police said the individuals were not involved with the event.

Founded seven years ago by McCartney in Boulder, Colo., Promise Keepers has grown geometrically in America's fundamentalist grass roots, from an initial prayer group of 72 men to mammoth stadium events that have been attended by a total of 2.6 million men.

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