Hundreds of thousands of Christian men packed the National Mall Saturday, producing one of the largest gatherings ever in the nation’s capital and converting Washington’s most symbolic open space into a massive revival tent.
The six-hour Promise Keepers’ “Sacred Assembly of Men” - one of the biggest religious gatherings in the country’s history - stretched dozens of blocks and beyond the grounds of the Washington Monument, a sea of humanity notable not only because of its size and purpose but also because it was made up almost entirely of men.
For the region, the crowd and the heat presented a massive challenge. Some streets feeding into the Mall were closed and there were long backups at Metro stations. Metro officials had to reroute some trains Saturday morning after a small plane bringing Promise Keepers to the rally crashed into Metro tracks near College Park, Md., injuring six men and complicating the arrival of thousands of participants.
Ambulances took dozens of people, including 94-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., to hospitals for heat-related problems.
The debate over what the gathering represents, what it may augur for Christians and non-Christians, even for the nation as a whole, will likely be fueled by the sheer size of the rally perhaps a half-million people. But what was most evident Saturday was not the larger arguments that are to come but the event itself, a powerful evocation of a kind of fervor that is hardly unique in the evangelical community but is seldom displayed so openly, in so central a place, by so many.
Scenes of hundreds of thousands of men obeying the call of pastors, hoisting Bibles, kneeling or laying prostrate, singing to the Lord and embracing, confessing and occasionally weeping, all framed by the Capitol and the Washington Monument, were often profoundly moving and symbolic.
In the principal address of the rally, CEO and founder Bill McCartney laid out what is expected of the men. The organization’s aim to build “a vibrant church,” McCartney said, requires each man to answer to a pastor and churches to one another. He predicted that on Jan. 1, 2000, the Promise Keepers will “go globally.”
“Nobody can go home without the same plan,” McCartney urged the crowd of men.
“Every man connected to a church, every church connected to each other. We propose that every man returns home and submits to the authority of a local shepherd. … You have to say to your pastor, ‘How high, how far and how much?”’
The language McCartney uses, critics say, echoes a controversial religious movement that gained prominence in the 1970s and then went underground because of the backlash it created. Called “shepherding/discipleship,” the movement set up a strict hierarchy and gave women a submissive role. Promise Keepers denies any link, although McCartney has acknowledged being “discipled” in the 1970s by one of the leaders.
The rally was a revival, solemn at times but also with the trappings of the arena, replete with the wave and beach balls. Men wore their faith on their sleeves, on T-shirts and on baseball caps. What some call “muscular Christianity” seemed to be manifested physically along the expanse of the Mall. The effect was palpable.
“Something like this, men can feel,” said Steve Galloway, a 40-year-old rancher from Gladewater, Texas, a town of 2,500 about 100 miles west of Dallas, who drove to the capital with five other men from Calvary Baptist Church. “It is a taste of Heaven.”
Saturday’s event was billed as apolitical and, for the most part, it was. One speaker asked people to pray for the unborn, and at several points along the Mall, groups that included Operation Rescue handed out literature. But from the stage several prominent Keepers seemed to go out of their way to leave politics out of what was billed a “solemn assembly.”
“Is it to demonstrate political might? No.” said Randy Phillips, president of Promise Keepers. “Is it to take back the nation by imposing our religious values? No.”
Although the weather was in many ways perfect - sunny, with temperatures that reached 80 degrees at 3:50 p.m. - the heat on the unshaded Mall caused a number of problems, according to Fire Battalion Chief Alvin Carter, who said that more than 80 people had to be transferred to area hospitals.
Throughout the region, and well before dawn, men moved toward the Mall. Groups started spilling out of trains and into Union Station just after 4 a.m. As they poured through the station and waved, one group paused on the platform to sing “Amazing Grace,” while another knelt and prayed for the city.
On the stage, there was a multiracial panel, including American Indians, but that diversity was not seen on the Mall. Aside from occasional groups of blacks, Asians and Latinos, the crowd was overwhelmingly white, reflecting the composition of the organization.