Skip to main content

Features

Capital promises

After Promise Keepers' huge rally in Washington, D.C., participants vow they'll strive to close the gap between words and actions.

(In Washington)--Saturday's "Sacred Assembly" on the Washington Mall was over, and the Promise Keepers were headed home. An hour east of Indianapolis, Charles Paxton, 54, pastor of Camby (Ind.) Community Church, stepped to the front of the bus and took the microphone. "If we go back and don't do anything, this will have been just a trip. We need to close the gap between our words and actions," he said.

Many of the 43 men, mostly his but several from other churches as well, nodded agreement. "If we do that, God will change us, our family, our churches, and our community. This weekend will have been the beginning of true revival."

A little behind schedule, the bus went straight to the Camby church, arriving after the sermon by Mr. Paxton's associate had begun. The men were unwashed, unshaved, and still in their grubby clothes, but it didn't matter.

A sign at the door greeted them: welcome back promise keepers! As they filed in the congregation of 150 applauded. The associate shifted homiletic gears, and for the next half-hour men shared their thoughts and experiences. Mr. Paxton later spoke about the changes he already had seen arising from previous PK rallies: "Marriages have been healed. Men have gotten reexcited about the church. Their commitment to their family and Lord has grown. It has affected their work."

Other pastors are leery about elements of Promise Keepers-a parachurch usurping of church authority, the charismatic orientation of some leaders, and the putting aside of doctrinal distinctions (see sidebar).

But the bottom line for PK supporters is simple: The rallies are changing men, and changed men mean changed families, changed churches, and changed communities. This bottom-up, one-by-one style of change was hard to grasp for some of the pundits on the Sunday-after "talking head" network TV shows. Some tried to have it both ways: The only way communities really could be changed is if the men went home and got involved in politics and changed public policy, they argued. Yet, without offering proof, they repeatedly accused founder Bill McCartney and the Promise Keepers ministry of harboring a hidden political agenda. Clearly, they were fearful that any PK position on public-policy issues might be at variance with their own.

Elizabeth Toledo of the National Organization for Women (NOW) was starkly honest in explaining to ABC's This Week audience the opposition of NOW to Promise Keepers. She decried the emphasis on male headship within the family (Scripture "is no excuse for putting men in charge"), attacked an "agenda that is not tolerant to lesbians and gays," and complained that the large PK crowds "could affect our efforts to achieve equality for women."

In summing up, though, the anchors and panelists on several of the network programs seemed to agree the PK gathering had been a "good thing" for the country. Day-after media coverage of the PK gathering was heavy and largely positive. In all, more than 1,000 media people representing some 350 newspapers, magazines, and broadcast outlets were on hand. A broadcast coalition anchored by Moody Broadcasting Network beamed full coverage of the event to more than 600 radio stations. C-SPAN and other cable networks provided invocation-to-benediction coverage, and CNN offered breakaway reports.

Many major dailies assigned reporters to ride cross-country to the rally with PK participants on buses and trains. Other reporters joined the crush on the Metro subway trains to do their interviewing. Washington bureau reporters suddenly found themselves assigned to cover a religion story instead of politics. Big dailies deployed squads of reporters around the mall to buttonhole people there. As a result, hundreds of vignettes were published in newspapers across the country recounting how changes in individual lives had turned around families and affected churches and communities.

Time magazine devoted a cover story to Promise Keepers in advance of the rally. It seemed The Washington Post itself had gotten religion. For two weeks preceding the event, it published a series of major stories on PK, largely positive. Columnists wary of "the Religious Right" nevertheless urged readers to "give Promise Keepers a chance." Some took note of the nation's moral morass and suggested that since nothing else has worked to fix it, it might be worth trying prayer for a change.

Singing and praying and getting to know their travelmates en route, participants began arriving on the mall on Friday in picture-perfect weather. Hundreds bedded down for the night in the space closest to the platform. U.S. Park Police looked the other way; it is illegal to camp overnight on the mall. Thousands of men slept in private homes and on the floor in churches. Several churches reported accommodating 400 or more. Hotels and motels for miles around were almost entirely sold out.

Metro began running its trains at 4 a.m. on Saturday to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of men unloaded by chartered buses at outlying stations. By noon Metro was reporting 350,000 riders had used the system. Many participants came to Washington by car, van, or plane. Some came on foot, having walked across entire states. Bicycle groups pedaled in from afar. Saturday morning TV news shows tapped into traffic cameras showing hundreds of Christian motorcyclists roaring in on I-66. Some had started out from California. Many looked as scary as any Hell's Angel, but on the mall, they prayed, sang, hugged, and wept like just about everybody else. A group of lawmakers from Capitol Hill huddled on chairs beneath the platform; other politicians were milling about out of sight behind stage.

In a random survey, The Washington Post came up with a snapshot of who was there: 80 percent were white, 14 percent were black; 78 percent were under age 50, 18 percent were under 30; 90 percent identified themselves as born-again, evangelical, or charismatic; 23 percent had no children; 24 percent were divorced; 45 percent reported family income of less than $50,000 last year. Over 70 percent had attended or graduated from college. Their single biggest reason for coming was to confess and repent their sins before God (32 percent), to show unity with other Christian men (25 percent), to ask God for help to change life for the better (14 percent), and to show support for their family (10 percent).

How many were there? Congress ordered the U.S. Park Police out of the crowd-estimating business in the aftermath of controversy over the size of Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March. Estimates of the PK crowd ranged from about 450,000 (in line with the Metro figures) to more than 1 million. Police, groundskeepers, and many reporters privately agreed with the assessment by Sam Jordan, director of the D.C. Office of Emergency Preparedness. He said it was the largest gathering he had ever seen in 24 years of work with large events. Workers said the event also produced the largest amount of trash-40 tons-of any event in memory, although the Promise Keepers also left the grounds cleaner than any major event.

The length of the mall from Third Street, near the platform, to 14th Street, the major artery dividing the mall from the Washington Monument grounds, is about 4,500 feet, and the width is nearly 600 feet, or about 2.7 million square feet. The entire expanse of the Washington Monument grounds is larger, about 3 million square feet. If every square foot-5.7 million square feet-were occupied in jammed-rock-concert density, 1 million people might fit. The PK crowd filled much of the mall and nearly one-third of the monument grounds, with plenty of room to move about, except close to the platform. Perhaps as many as 20,000 were milling about on side streets.

The six-hour program was patterned after those used in the stadium rallies, including the use of many of the same musicians, speakers (44 in all, from many different racial and ethnic groups), and message themes. Speakers urged men to confess their sins and repent, rededicate themselves to their families and assume responsibility for them, spread the gospel and bring others to Christ, help their pastors, embrace fellow Christians across denominational lines, and work for racial unity. A dozen Jumbotron screens and giant sound systems ensured that speakers were seen and heard along the mall and on the Washington Monument and Ellipse grounds more than a mile away.

Men in the crowd sang, linked arms, knelt and, at times, lay prostrate to pray. They confessed aloud to sins of racism, immorality, pride, and neglecting their families. They rose up in jubilant stadium-style "waves," sang, and shouted approval as they applauded speakers' points that hit home. They promised to become better fathers, husbands, friends, and Christians.

Founder McCartney announced new directions for the Promise Keepers. Stadium rallies in the future will be free (instead of costing $60), and there will be greater emphasis on evangelism and on reaching "lukewarm" men in the church. A roar of approval went up from the crowd. And, Mr. McCartney added, beginning in 2000, the movement will go international. Men in the churches in other countries need to be challenged as those in America have been, he said.

On a street leading from Union Station to the mall, a small group of lesbian and NOW demonstrators were outnumbered by women supporters of Promise Keepers across the street. Several lesbian demonstrators took off their shirts and plunged bare-chested into the mall crowd during a prayer about sexual temptation. Police said they arrested two of the semi-nudists.

Resting in the shade of an art museum just off the mall and listening by radio

were Pastor Al Picou, 48, of the Jesus is the Answer Church in inner-city New Orleans, and his lay associate, Keith Carter, 42. Their small, racially mixed church is made up almost entirely of males-converts from the ranks of drug users, alcoholics, and homeless who inhabit the desolate neighborhoods around the church. Both men are black, both have families (Mr. Picou has five children), and both work at day jobs to help underwrite their church's intensive social outreach ministry. Mr. Picou led Mr. Carter and his then seriously ill wife to Christ five years ago. Mr. Carter says he has never met anyone who exemplifies Christ as much as Mr. Picou.

They described the difficulty of their work ("you need to die to yourself and give yourself 100 percent to these people to get their attention") and the need for others to help. When asked whether fellow Promise Keepers in the New Orleans suburbs helped out, both men smiled. "We are good performers when we are together with one another," Mr. Picou says. "But when we go back home to break down the walls, we often don't do anything about it."

Closing the gap between words and actions-that was a key message of the big rally, and (as Indiana pastor Paxton indicated) a key test, during the next several years, of whether PK is truly a movement from God.

Edward E. Plowman

Edward E. Plowman

Ed (1931-2018) was a WORLD reporter. Read Marvin Olasky's tribute.