WASHINGTON -- When Promise Keepers fills the National Mall with people and prayers today, it hopes to make history. Certainly, it's got the setup to do so.
Just look at what the Christian men's group has assembled for its first national rally: 44 guest speakers, 11 JumboTrons (the group wanted a few extras, but the Rolling Stones had first dibs), 100-plus sound speakers, 24 generators (with hushed motors to preserve a prayerful ambience on the Mall), 210 phone lines, 130 stage lights, 1 million free Bibles, 1,500 portable toilets and much more.
For six hours starting at noon today, upward of 500,000 men will fill the grassy lawn between the Capitol and the Washington Monument for worship, tears, repentance and comfort in what is expected to be the defining moment of the nation's fastest-growing evangelical group.
The event, called "Stand in the Gap: A Sacred Assembly of Men," is the handiwork of Bill McCartney, a former University of Colorado football coach who formed Promise Keepers in 1991. His group wants to help men find salvation and inner peace and -- its most controversial element -- enable them to reclaim their traditional role over women as spiritual leaders in their families.
Capital in overdrive
With visitors from every state in the nation and 106 countries expected to attend the rally, the capital has gone into Promise-Keeper-overdrive. About 1,250 federal and city law enforcement officers are expected to be on duty today.
"This is huge," said Sam Jordan, director of the city's Office of Emergency Preparedness, which oversees crowd control for major events. "It has the potential to be one of the largest rallies we've seen in Washington."
The crowd could rival the 1995 Million Man March, whose numbers were variously estimated at between 400,000 and 2 million. The biggest Mall gathering, according to National Park .. Service counts, was in 1965 -- 1.2 million at President Lyndon B. Johnson's inauguration. The 1963 civil rights march on Washington drew a crowd of only 250,000, the Park Service said.
Notwithstanding its staging in Washington, Promise Keepers officials say the rally is not meant to convey a conservative political agenda. Instead, they call it simply a chance to reach "the emotional heart of America."
Promise Keepers has been granted a First Amendment permit, which means it is not required to pay for any of the city and federal services used on its behalf. But the rally will end up costing Promise Keepers about $10 million in money raised privately.
The crowds are expected to begin congregating on the Mall at dawn, clogging trains, buses and the Metro. Not only are most commercial flights into Washington booked, but Promise Keepers chartered 73 jets, including several jumbo 747s, to land at Dulles, National and Baltimore-Washington International airports.
Some folks wanted to turn the rally into a pilgrimage. Nearly 2,000 bikers from the Christian Motorcyclists Association will roll into town after a trip that began 10 days ago in Needles, Calif. Usually, they distribute inspirational messages at motorcycle races.
Adding to this weekend's D.C. crowds: a World Cup Soccer competition, a gay rodeo show, a Chinese celebration and a Germanfest.
But Promise Keepers is the main event. Police expect a peaceful rally. They say Promise Keepers, which has visited Washington twice before in local rallies, is easy to manage.
"They even clean up after themselves," said Capt. Michael Radzilowski, head of D.C. police special events.
Authorities expect about 300 counter-demonstrators from the National Organization for Women, an atheist group from New York and a Baltimore-Washington lesbian activist group. Some women's rights groups see sexism in the Promise Keepers' message that husbands must reassert their patriarchal role in the family.
Roughly 20,000 volunteers will be on hand to help. Keith Meins, a volunteer working on security, had no doubt why he was putting in 16-hour days last week.
"It's out of a sense of service to the body of Christ," Meins said. "This is absolutely worth it."
Last week, Promise Keepers followers could be found walking along the Mall with heads bowed in prayer.
These "prayer teams" won some new followers among the private contractors who were working the grounds for the Washington rally, said Paul Erickson, a volunteer.
"A dozen contractors came to Christ," he said. "They never had the chance before."
Perhaps even more than the speakers and choral performances, participants say, the greatest demonstration might be the sense of stillness on the Mall.
"When you hear on Saturday a call for a moment of prayer, the entire Mall will fall silent," Erickson said. "It will be a time of absolute silence and reflection."