Promise Keepers:It's a guy thing for Jesus All the Lord's Men

June 25, 1995|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

Washington -- On another weekend in another season, these men hustling down the ramps at RFK Stadium would be scrambling to beat the parking lot jam or make last call for Budweiser. Tonight, there's no beer to be found. The men rise cold sober from their seats, rush to the field and step onto the red clay to bow their heads, cry, embrace, tell a story.

They offer stories to their Lord Jesus. Some have been drunk. Some have been driven by pornography into sexual fantasy. Others have been deceitful or adulterous or blinded by ambition or absent from the lives of their wives and children. Scan the field and see in the bluish night-game light all these fallen men of God.

Look in any direction and see nothing but men -- more than 50,000.

When they filled the stadium the last weekend in May they became part of the continuing story of Promise Keepers, a 5-year-old evangelical Christian men's movement that has packed one stadium after another. The group was founded by the former University of Colorado head football coach, Bill McCartney, a born-again Christian known for leading his team to a nationalchampionship. And for saying publicly that ' homosexuals are "stark raving mad" and for nearly getting his university sued by the American Civil Liberties Union for preaching in the locker room.

Lately, Mr. McCartney's been preaching mostly to the choir at these conferences, which have drawn more than 400,000 men since last year. Entry fees and donations have swelled the nonprofit organization's budget from $4 million in 1993 to $22 million.

What's driving all this?

It's not anger, the men say. It's not a backlash against feminism, says Mr. McCartney, whom Rep. Patricia Schroeder, the Colorado Democrat, once called "a self-appointed ayatollah." The rhetoric has all the storm of a testosterone-fueled tent revival, but one-on-one, the men seem such regular, mild-mannered guys.

Most profess no interest in the secular men's movement, no experience with encounter groups, drumming or pursuing their Wild Man. Yet they come, seeking their male essence under the auspices of Christ in a stadium full of cheering men.

The Promise Keepers, based outside Boulder, Colo., claims to seek nothing less than the country's moral redemption. That is, it wants to repair the family, rebuild communities and redress America's own Original Sin of racism. Not by political action but by raising men's standards of ethics and responsibility. Hence the group name, which refers to commitments members make to honor Jesus Christ, form close relationships with a few men, maintain high sexual and moral standards, build strong marriages, support the church and break down racial and "denominational" barriers among Christians. No mention is made interfaith barriers, and Promise Keepers pledge obedience to the mandate set forth in the Gospel of Matthew: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

The men seek, the weekend refrain goes, to become "more godly men."

Men seeking greater godliness stream down the aisles of RFK Stadium. The crowd ranges in age from 30 to 55, and most are married. There are more black and Hispanic men than one might have assumed from reading the press clippings.

They wear shorts and baseball caps and polo shirts, blue jeans, sport shirts or kerchiefs on their heads. Some are bearded and long-haired and drive Harleys. Some are carefully groomed like disciples of Ralph Reed. They look like the men you'd expect to see at Camden Yards on a spring night.

On stage stands Luis Palau, a radio and television evangelist from Oregon, urging the men who have not committed themselves to Christ to step forward and do so. Submit yourself, he says. Submit your intellect. Submit your sexuality to the "godship" of Christ. "How many of you," Mr. Palau asks, "are ready to come forward and say, 'I surrender to you'?"

Several thousand in the crowd of 50,440 move to the field, crisscrossing with others who carry trays of nachos, hot dogs and sodas, and passing the women's bathrooms where doors are papered over with hand-lettered signs that say "MEN." The arena fills with bass voices singing. Song lyrics glow white on blue fields from two screens lofted high above the stage:

You are the potter. I am the clay. Mold me and make me. This is what I pray.

The men have already paid $55 or $65 to get in. Further tithing this weekend is done in the currency of the moment, the sort of confession commonly heard in 12-step meetings: Here is where I fell, here is the person I hurt. A stadium full of men, a stadium full of stories. A whole movement seemingly knit together by the symbolic power of stories. Gospel, personal narratives, a mass convergence of falls and pursuits of redemption.

'Watch your eyes'

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