HARTFORD -- More than 12,000 men had packed into a basketball arena for this weekend's rally of the Promise Keepers, the evangelical Christian men's group, by the time the Rev. Jack Hayford began sharing a spiritual crisis he said he faced about six weeks ago. It seems his cable system had reassigned the channel numbers and as he surfed around for the new homes of CNN and ESPN, he ran across a scrambled X-rated station.
"You could see, just to be very blunt here in this gathering of guys," he told the crowd, "there was very clearly a breast there." Hayford, 65, of Van Nuys, Calif., said he continued flipping but started to wonder what was on the channel. He headed back, then stopped. As he tells it, he prayerfully said, "My God," and decided to take a stand.
"I know the channel number still, but it doesn't even tempt me, brother," he said, to applause sprinkled with "Amen," "Hallelujah" and simply, "Wow!" Hayford was talking a guy's language -- skin, temptation, cable and the clicker. Promise Keepers calls it "the male context," and it begins with the setting for its revivals, most of which are held in stadiums or sports arenas. The group has largely faded from public view since its "Stand in the Gap" rally drew hundreds of thousands of men to the National Mall in Washington in 1997. The group has shrunk but is still huge, with 180 full-time employees and annual revenues of $41 million.
Now the ministry, based in Denver, is pushing into the Northeast, trying to bolster its membership and diversify its overwhelmingly white following by connecting with African-American and ethnic churches. The drive began last month in Philadelphia, continued Friday and Saturday at the Hartford Civic Center, and moves on Oct. 1 and 2 to the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J.
On Friday night, a piano, then horns and finally drums rose behind Hayford as he began to call men to accept Jesus as their personal savior. Soon the men were linking arms and clasping hands. Some pushed their palms heavenward while others formed circles, gently swaying as men streamed down to the stage for the altar call. Within minutes, the front of the arena began to look like a Pentecostal mosh pit, with some of the men doing jumping jacks to the pounding music.
"For the first time in their life, these men are free, and they love it," said Lance Morgan, 36, of Reading, Pa., who was attending his fifth Promise Keepers gathering. "I can put my arms around this man, because we both enjoy the same savior."
Promise Keepers justifies its all-male events by saying that women have groups of their own, and by saying that men are less inhibited if wives are not along. For legal reasons, women are not turned away. But few go. Groups took buses from churches throughout New England. Some wore matching T-shirts.
Out-of-towners slept in local churches. After laying out sleeping bags in a fingerpaint-spattered Sunday school room at the New Britain Church of God, the 32 men who came with Mr. Morgan from the Spring Valley Church of God in Reading, Pa., held a midnight Bible study.
Bob Jackson, 47, said he had split up with his wife in April, and admitted he used to "physically shake her." But he said that after he attended a Promise Keepers rally, she stopped divorce proceedings. "It made me a gentle man, and God softened her heart toward me," he said. They are working to reconcile.
Promise Keepers was founded in 1990 by Bill McCartney, the former head coach of the University of Colorado football team. By 1996, the group had a staff of 360, revenues of $87 million and drew 1.1 million men. Last year, financial problems -- fueled in part by a decision to drop the admission fee for revivals -- forced the group to lay off its entire staff temporarily, and its rallies drew a total of just 453,000. Now the group is looking overseas, and plans to hold its first international conference in Johannesburg this month.
Organizers say they have worked hard to reach across racial lines as part of what they call "reconciliation." Brian S. Doyle, 41, the group's New England area manager, spent five years building relationships with black churches in Connecticut, including praying at 7 A.M. every Wednesday with ministers in
Edgar D. Barron, a Promise Keepers vice president who is black, said his visual assessment of the audience at this weekend's gathering was that the minority representation was "if we're lucky, 10 percent."
The rallies often draw pickets from feminist groups; this weekend, about 20 members of the Connecticut branch of the National Organization for Women demonstrated in a drizzle outside the Civic Center. Laura Montgomery Rutt, the national organizer of Equal Partners in Faith, a group founded to counter the Promise Keepers, asserted that the rallies "take the legitimate spiritual needs of men and manipulate them to promote a political agenda," which she described as anti-homosexual and anti-women. (The official Promise Keepers view of homosexuality is that it is a sin equal to adultery or premarital sex, since the group approves of sex only in marriage.)
And Alfred F. Ross, president of the Institute for Democracy Studies, a New York group critical of the religious right which publishes a journal called Promise Keepers Watch, asserted that "putting your wife in submission is not a real answer for real men."
One wife who was left behind this weekend, Patricia Rock, 34, said she did not mind that her husband, Jim, attended with two of their sons, Elijah, 8, and Jared, 10.
"Men are the leaders," she said by telephone from their home in Enfield, N.H. "Whether Jim is right or wrong, God will bless me for going along with what he says."
Even so, some women do have a place at Promise Keepers events -- as volunteers to perform support services. Organizers estimated that about 450 of the 800 volunteers working this weekend were women. Many of them were in the basement of the Civic Center, running the Promise Keepers Bookstore, where they prayed in circles around the cash registers during lulls in traffic.
Promise Keepers used to charge an admission fee of about $60. Since last year, in response to what the ministry's officials said was a directive from God, only an offering is taken. The Hartford program included 10 minutes for a presentation of "P.K.'s Financial Needs." The organizers' private schedule listed 16 minutes for the "passing of buckets." The bookstore sold accessories for the Promise Keepers life style, including an organizer with spaces for prayer requests, and God's answers.
Booths offered everything from Web-blocking software to Christian book clubs. Jews for Jesus, which encourages Jewish people to find "grace and salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ," sold caps proclaiming, "Jesus Made Me Kosher." Exodus International, which offers "freedom from homosexuality for those who desire to change," hoisted a banner promising relief from "sexual brokenness."
Speeches include a heavy dose of just-us-guys humor. Michael Silva, the founder of Evangelism International Inc., in Portland, Ore., drew an appreciative roar with "The Senility Prayer," which he said begins, "God grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway."
Promise Keepers speakers do not mix with attendees, and are whisked off the stage during a hymn that closes their presentations. Burly security volunteers with headsets and black T-shirts prevent anyone from approaching the speakers. "You ever been to a Rolling Stones concert?" asked Bob Havey, the event's local media captain. "This is no different."
For a few, it was too much. Marshall J. Darling, 55, a mortgage banker who is a lay reader at his Episcopal church in Andover, Mass., said the stories he had heard on the bus ride down and on the arena floor indicated that "a lot of these people are in major league pain, and grab onto this for solace."
Most, though, said they found it to be a wholesome experience. During the final hymns of a Promise Keepers event, volunteers pass out trash bags and the small amount of litter quickly disappears. The master of ceremonies, Bob Horner, declared, "Not only is the stadium clean, a few of us got clean in the process."
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