A mixed blessing

By Mike Laurence

In our hard-driving Western world, men are often considered to be inexpressive, hard, unsentimental, competitive, unemotive, and materialistic. Fervour, earnestness, ardour, warmth, and love are not the feelings usually attributed to men in our culture.

But the men at the Promise Keepers meeting I attended evinced all of these salutary feelings. And they manifested brotherhood and deep caring for their families. They expressed the masculine soul. They showed that they knew a power stronger than themselves. They prayed with outstretched arms. They put their arms around their sons, fathers, brothers, and strangers. They blessed each other.

The feelings were not orchestrated by the theatrics and messages coming from the stage. The feelings welled up from within the men at the meeting and within me watching the men at the meeting.

The spirituality was palpable. It transcended the mundane. The sacred touched the profane in me. Love and God were genuine and legitimate.

Although not a Christian, I was deeply affected by these overpowering emotions. Their brotherhood clearly included me. Their spirituality easily cradled me. Their goodfellowship drew me. I felt the power and strength that these men carried in their hearts and brought to their daily lives. The might of these men in spiritual brotherhood surely was potent.

At the same time, I could understand how the potential of that vigour could frighten those who accuse the Promise Keepers of wanting to turn back the clock to a patriarchal, homophobic past that I am pleased we are leaving behind.

The Lord is King. Shout it! The Lord is King!

Music and song from two choirs on a mammoth stage roused the nearly 40,000 men who had come to find the Lord or to rededicate their lives to Christ. The music was infectious: heavy percussion pounded a strong rock-and-roll beat and pumped out inspirational lyrics in English and Spanish. Eighty thousand hands clapped in time to the music. Two huge television screens displayed the energy and enthusiasm of the members of the choir.

With this commotion on a warm summer's day in early June, the Promise Keepers began their men's conference in Syracuse, New York, a midsized city six hours northwest of New York City.

The theme of the meeting was Break down the walls, referring to many divisions: racial, religious, class, and familial.

Most of the men had paid US$60 to attend the conference, held in the Carrier Dome, which usually hears the hearty cheering of fans for the Syracuse University Orangemen rather than the deep-throated singing and prayers of men.

Thousands of men rose up in the Carrier Dome, and with expressions of rapture, they turned toward the stage. The message and song from the stage was translated simultaneously into Spanish and French and broadcast over special frequencies to radios supplied by the Promise Keepers.

Everything was also presented in American Sign Language. Many men stretched out their arms in prayer and closed their eyes. The Carrier Dome began to vibrate:

Then sings my soul, my Saviour, God, to Thee. How great Thou art. How great Thou art.

This hymn continued for several minutes. The emotion, reverence, and fervour were palpable.

The message

Friday evening's first speaker was James Ryle, who was introduced as a husband and father. After a series of tired jokes, Ryle cut to the message. He told the crowd that many men were there because they wanted to do the right thing for themselves their families, their friends and work. "In the dark, however, you feel that you don't measure up," Ryle intoned. "The self must die. Self is behind alcoholism, drug addiction, pornography, abuse," he said. "The self must die so Jesus Christ can live in you!"

A drama began to build. "I'm going to set you free from a prison your father [Adam] has built," Ryle said. "Sin is that prison, and you are in it".He called the men to come to the altar - his term for the huge multimedia stage at the front of the Carrier Dome.

"Men, stand now if you're ready to be born again. Come to this altar, and come to Christ".

Men streamed from the seats, down the aisles, and to the altar. Some of the men came down with their arms around each other's shoulders. At the altar, men embraced each other. The choir began to sing Amazing Grace.

Those who stayed in their seats quietly applauded, sang softly, or prayed with out-stretched arms. In the seats, men huddled in circles holding hands. By the Promise Keepers' count, about two thousand men went to the altar to be born again. Each was asked to complete a form, found in the front of the bibles each man was given on entering the Dome, to permit future contact. By then the music had changed to a hypnotic and mesmerising chant of Let the walls fall down.

Everyone in the Dome moved to the music's strong beat. They cheered for the men at the altar. The music abruptly changed again to the refrain, Yes, we all agree, and the men in the seats harmonised and raised their right hands.

The founder of Promise Keepers, Bill McCartney, spoke next. His presentation was not as dramatic nor as polished as Ryle's, but his words appeared to come from his heart. He asked the congregation to rank their relationships on a scale of one to ten: marriage, children, father. "Men, how many friends do you have who you could look in the eye and say, 'We have a ten.'?" He continued, "How many whites have a black friend at a ten or a nine or an eight?" Finally, the speakers instructed the men to "open your hearts to love to let you become the husband your wife needs or to be the father your children need." Thus ended the Friday evening service, a mixture of prayer, theatre, and family therapy.

The promise continues.

Thousands of men arrived at the Carrier Dome at 7:00 to pray before the Promise Keepers' service began. By 8:30, the stadium was filled, and the service began promptly. The men were asked to form groups of three and tell each other what they needed. The Dome buzzed with small groups of men, some holding hands, some with arms around shoulders, some just talking, a few standing alone. A hymn began from the stage: Holy, holy, holy in the Lord.

From the stage the speaker asked each man who had brought his son to stand. Thousands stand. Next, grandfathers who had brought their grandsons were asked to stand. Several hundred men rose.

Boys' "break-out."

1600 boys aged 14 through 17 gathered separately from the men for "break-out," part prayer service and part pep rally.

A loud rock band blared a hymn punctuated with bible reading by the musicians. The song was entitled Who Knows the Lord? but the words were unintelligible. For a contemporary twist, the hymn Nothin's Impossible to My God was laced with music from the movie Mission Impossible.

Most of the boys participated, but a few hundred just sat. Several topics were addressed quickly, such as: "Eliminate the things in life that are not like Christ" - including MTV and Magic Cards.

One speaker did a Billy Graham impersonation - and did it well. Another emphasised the manliness of Christ for enduring the beating before crucifixion.

Just as at the men's meeting the previous night, the boys were asked to dedicate their lives to Christ. Just a handful moved forward to make this pledge.

Then came the most emotional moment for me.

Back in the Carrier Dome, the men were told that their sons and grandsons would soon return. A native American speaker, Tom Claus of the Turtle Clan of the Mohawk Tribe - a tribe native to the Syracuse area - spoke to the men. He was dressed with a full headdress, long white and black feathers with blue and yellow decoration. He talked about his father and grandfather and their service to Christ. Through the story of the prodigal son, Claus told the men, "The Christian fathers must show their children their love. The children must feel the love from their fathers". He promoted reconciliation within families and sang a hymn in the Mohawk language that his father had taught him.

To prepare for the moment when the boys returned, the men were instructed to welcome them as they entered the Dome with a huge cheer and applause. Next, hundreds of boys flooded into the Dome from dozens of entrances. The entering boys were cheered. Many exchanged high-fives with the men near the entrances. Tom Claus lead a chant: We love you. We love you.

Perhaps this was the first time many of these boys had heard this sentiment from men, including their fathers.

Million-man march.

The time came to pass the buckets and accept donations. The Promise Keepers wished to fund a million-man march on Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1997. "Give what you can," said the speaker.

Pledge cards had a space for contributions by credit card. "But, we don't expect you to go into debt to make a contribution. The credit card line is there for your convenience, but not to go into debt for the Promise Keepers".

A number of other speakers followed. They raged against racism, extolled the virtue of forgiveness, proclaimed the fruitlessness of grudges and the futility of revenge. The day ended with more prayers and song. By the end of it, most of the men were exhausted from the ecstatic events and heat, yet clearly, the lives of thousands of men had been affected.

The Dome emanated bonhomie. After two days of religious drama in Syracuse, what did the Promise Keepers advance? Men of integrity. Men committed to their families. Elder men affirming and blessing young men. Young men showing respect for their elders. Men following the example of Christ. These are some of the finest expressions of manhood.

The Promise Keepers also advocated a tired patriarchy, Christian-only principles, and damnation of homosexuals. These are debilitating limitations. But having experienced the conference first-hand, I find it hard to dismiss the Promise Keepers for these failings. The meeting was not about the loud music, the multimedia stage, or the exhortations. Many of the men had found their centers. They held their virility in their hearts. Our spirituality together made us brothers. We were all kings.

* Mike Lawrence is a technical and free lance writer who lives in upstate New York with his wife, two teen-aged sons, and ten-year-old daughter.

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