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Promise Keepers

A Volunteer's Perspective

“Why don’t you attend as a volunteer, and then we can observe the rally from different angles.” This was Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen’s suggestion. She was coming to Pittsburgh to report for Books and Culture on the 1996 Promise Keepers’ rally to be held at Three Rivers Stadium. I wasn’t sure about the plan. Mary would be there in an official capacity, and that seemed more up-front to me. I didn’t want to be a spy. But she proved persuasive, and at the last minute I offered my services for the second day of the rally.

As we walked across the stadium parking lot, the sound of male voices in song swirled out of the stadium, haunting and beautiful. Promise Keepers were beginning their day by singing old-fashioned hymns. Later, they would switch to contemporary music accompanied by a loud band; but I will never forget my introduction to Promise Keepers and that welcoming sound drifting down around us in the early morning air.

Mary had warned me that dress was casual, and I was glad for the tip. The printed information for volunteers contained the admonition to dress modestly, and I had assumed that was code for “no shorts.” But Mary said shorts were the uniform of the day. And so they were. Everyone—male and female—wore shorts, baggy and comfortable and cool. It was to be a very hot day without a cloud in the sky. I was glad that I would be under a tent.

Mary and I parted, agreeing to meet after lunch. She would try to get me up to the press box with her. But first I would do my volunteer stint. I approached the volunteer command center not sure what to expect. Could I do it with a right spirit?

I was directed to an enormous tent where my assignment was to take orders for tapes and videos. The information was dearly presented to me, and everything I needed was there on my table. To my left were women selling shins and to my right were women selling hats. Books and music were in the middle aisles of the tent. Our pattern was repeated several times throughout the enormous tent, and there were three other tents like ours circling the stadium. We were selling to 44,000 men, so the set-up needed to be elaborate. The men filed in at the center from two entrances on either side of the tent and exited through both ends. In front of each exit was a bank of six or eight electronic cashier stations, somewhat like a large K-Man. I was glad I wasn’t a cashier.
Behind our sales tent was a smaller tent just for the volunteers. We could go there for breakfast, lunch and snacks. Pop, coffee, cold water, fresh fruit and cookies were available at all times. As noon approached, it began to get quite hot in the large sales tent and the sides were tacked up to allow the few breezes to move through. A volunteer was assigned to go around to each of us and ask if we were too hot or if we needed anything to drink. They seemed to think of everything.

Most of the volunteers seemed to have come in groups or pairs and had someone familiar to talk to. But even alone, I was made to feel a part of things by a prevailing climate of friendliness. Not only did I enjoy the company of my co-volunteers, but the staff directing us was relaxed and courteous. They came across as low-key, competent people who respected everyone.

Volunteers and staff wore casual shirts that identified their task. When I arrived, l was given the volunteer’s blue T-shirt with the Promise Keepers logo on it and directed to a partitioned area where I could change. Staff were easily spotted in their white knit shirts with vertical green stripes. Many of them wore beepers and head sets for communication. Some of the staff were women, and they seemed to have quite a bit of responsibility. Later, when I was inside the stadium, I saw that people on the platform, including featured speakers, wore green knit shins with vertical white stripes. Choir members had black T-shirts that said “Real Men Sing Real Loud.” It proved to be an effective system. I was able to spot a staff person easily whenever I had a question.

All through the morning, men wandered through our tent, I suppose on their way to the stadium. The most popular items were hats and music tapes. The selection of books was rather limited, disappointingly so. I picked up one on marriage to read while I worked and scanned it while working. When it was time to go, I put the book back rather than purchasing it. It hadn’t captured my interest.

Critics are giving the commercial aspect of Promise Keepers unfavorable mention, noting the expensive merchandise and their efficient presentation. My impression was that items, especially clothing, were appropriately priced. I couldn’t help but admire the shins, and thought of buying one for my husband. I wasn’t sure that he would wear the Promise Keepers logo, and decided not to risk it.

While I had been apprehensive about how I would be treated, I quickly felt at ease. The men attending Promise Keepers were, like the staff, low-key. They were appreciative of the volunteers without being condescending. The majority of the men appeared to be in their thirties and forties. There were many father/son combinations, but few sons in their later teens or twenties. When it came to their purchases, Promise Keepers were typical male shoppers—making decisions quickly and moving on.

One father with two young sons in tow asked if there were something he could buy for his daughter. We were able to direct him to a section of shirts for women and girls.

One man, perhaps in his mid-thirties, wanted to purchase a tape of the last night’s session. He had missed the opening talk because of a massive traffic jam coming in from Ohio. He didn’t have money with him to pay for the tape. I assured him he could order by mail or phone when he got back home. The next day his picture was featured on the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette over their lead article which was about Promise Keepers. He was pictured praying with two other men, arms thrown over each other. I thought it remarkable that out of 44,000 attending, I had met one of the three photographed. I also thought him a good choice since his earnest manner typified the men I met there.

Through most of the morning, I was only moderately busy. There was time to listen to the program broadcast over loudspeakers in the center of the tent. My reaction to what I heard was mixed.

The opening speaker greeted the men by quoting Psalm 133, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity!” Those words used by a group hidden away in a stadium, a group which I could never join, stirred a feeling that I had not expected—genuine sadness.

Another time, I was amused to hear a speaker describe the birth of his daughter saying, “When they got the baby out .... “ No woman would ever say it that way.

When the ‘subject was marriage, men were urged to renounce malice toward their wives. That talk was peppered with illustrations about male anger and malice—but none of the illustrations came from marriage or situations that included women. This speaker left the vague impression that he was avoiding something. Other talks contained illustrations that were quite pointed. I wonder if wife abuse is a sin too shameful for men to describe even before other men.

The man who spoke about being a good dad was very moving. He had lots of illustrations using his experiences with his own children, both sons and a daughter. He brought one of his sons with him and together they put on a skit that opened his talk. This man did not brag about his accomplishments or those of his children. He dwelt on how much he loved his children and enjoyed them. He spoke about protecting his daughter. He ended his talk by asking all boys eighteen and younger to stand while the whole group applauded them. Then he asked for a father or mentor to stand with each boy. The father was to put his arm around his son and tell him he loved him. The speaker then asked . the father to pray aloud for this boy. A buzz could be heard over the speakers, and the people in my tent fell silent.

Just before noon, I was told to go to the volunteer canteen and get my lunch. It was a deceptively small white cardboard box that revealed a feast when opened: three pieces of chicken (nicely seasoned), a container of potato salad, a can of fruit punch, a large corn muffin, an orange, a giant oatmeal cookie and two chocolate covered cakes. It was a lunch to please everyone. It was when I began my orange that I was hit with how filling, balanced and thoughtful the lunch was. There were three options for dessert—the orange (which happened to be almost perfect), the oatmeal cookie or the twinkie-style cake. From health nut to young at heart, each would have something pleasing.

As we volunteers sat munching our lunch, we heard over the loudspeakers the announcement to the Promise Keepers about their lunch arrangements. They were to file out of the stadium and receive a box lunch as they passed out through the turnstiles. This put all 44,000 men outside the stadium at one time. They were free to walk around and visit the sales tents.

An unsympathetic critic might accuse Promise Keepers of manipulation for this procedure. Sending the men outside the stadium where the sales tents were located would increase the likelihood of their making purchases. A charitable person might say that it was good to break up the day and give people a chance to move around. My guess is that both reasons were at work.

Then we were really busy, but things remained under control. Volunteers stood at each entrance restricting the number that could enter at any given time so it never became unmanageable. The lines twisted around each side of the huge tent. The men stood quietly in the hot sun waiting their turn to enter without showing signs of impatience. My volunteer duties were completed at 1 p.m., and I headed toward the stadium where I was to meet Mary. I felt bad leaving my post while the tent was still crowded, but I had agreed to meet Mary at a certain time and keeping that appointment was the only way we could meet.

The scent of orange peel was everywhere, fresh and clean. Every few feet there were giant trash bags for the men to put their lunch boxes in when they were finished. Everything was neat and tidy.

So disarming had been the courtesy and kindness shown the women volunteers that I left the tent thinking of the words of Psalm 84, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.” True that pang I felt upon hearing the early morning call from Psalm 133 was real, but I had to admit that my role as a “servant” excluded from the sanctuary was far more pleasant that that as an “equal” at many secular events. But the real test would come when I entered the stadium where women were definitely not invited.

Mary met me as planned and whisked me up the elevator to the press booth. It took me some time to adjust to the surroundings because the noise level was deafening. A concert was in process on the field. It was my chance to finally meet Ann Rodgers-Melnick, religion writer for the Post-Gazette, and all we could do was smile and nod. Tony Norman, my nephew, also a writer for the Post-Gazette, came over and made sure I knew about the food being served. The media was well taken care of.

The press box was the perfect place to view the entire stadium, and I scanned the crowd looking for familiar faces. I wished I had brought binoculars. The only person I recognized on the field was Tim Russell, chaplain of Geneva College. Later, I learned that many men I knew were there. Maybe I wasn’t used to seeing them in T-shirts and baseball caps. The crowd was reassembling in a casual manner. Boys were playing catch in corners of the field.

At last the concert came to a close, and the crowd cheered. The informality continued but now with more men in their seats than out of them. The afternoon program consisted of a series of speakers interspersed with singing. But aside from the opening concert, nothing could be called entertainment. Everything had a serious purpose behind it.
Joseph Garlington, an African-American, who along with his wife (who is also an ordained minister) is co-pastor of a multi-racial church in Pittsburgh, spoke powerfully on the sin of racism. Before he preached, Pastor Garlington sang “Amazing Grace.” He had a magnificent voice that rocked the stadium. Then he sang it a second time encouraging the crowd to sing with him. This time the band fell silent permitting the male voices to resonate alone in the cavernous stadium. It was an “amazing” introduction to his talk.

Pastor Garlington had several illustrations but the most impressive w~ when he called a white pastor of a suburban Pittsburgh church to come and stand beside him. They put their arms around each other while Pastor Garlington spoke about their friendship and what it meant to him personally.

A special emphasis of the rally was condemnation of racism and to a lesser degree sectarianism. I asked Tony why he thought sexism was left out since that too is an institutionalized sin. (He and Mary had attended two press conferences with the Promise Keepers staff and had had the opportunity to ask that kind of question of the leadership.) Tony said he thought there was a sense that racism was close to exploding and needed attention first.

The last speaker of the day asked the men to renounce sins against purity. He mentioned adultery and pornography. He called on the men to stand for what was right. The evening ended with a call for repentance from sin, and a huge crowd of men went forward.

It was a men’s gathering, but there was no resentment of our presence. That was a surprise to me. I had expected to feel quite out of place since almost no women volunteers were assigned inside the stadium. No one seemed either delighted or upset to have women around; no remarks. We were just people. When we passed, they looked us in the eye and smiled. Men were at ease with us.

I couldn’t help but notice the relaxed posture of the men. They seemed almost to be lounging rather than sitting in their seats. They were sprawled everywhere in a totally relaxed manner. Like my boys sit when at home.

Sometime during the afternoon it became necessary to find a rest room. Ali of the women’s rooms had the “wo” covered and were being used by men. When we asked, someone cheerfully emptied out a women’s room for us and stood guard until we came out. It could have been embarrassing, but was handled with grace and good cheer.
The Apostle Paul, when writing to young Timothy, exhorted him to treat older women as mothers and younger women as sisters with all purity. In a remarkable way I saw that carried out at Promise Keepers.
The contrast that I am making with the behavior of the men attending Promise Keepers and what I have experienced elsewhere is not limited to secular events, but extends to evangelical Christian gatherings. I have never before attended a co-ed meeting of Christians where gender tension was completely absent.

Sexual tension was not the only thing missing. I heard nothing about headship, male spirituality, leadership roles for men, the husband being priest of the home, complementarity or the foibles of women. I say missing, not because I thought they belonged, but because I had been led to expect to hear them. Women were not the problem, neither were they the solution. In fact, very little was said about women.

Someone in the press booth told me that his wife resents hearing calls at their church for the conversion of men as if men are special before God. He noted the absence of that egocentric message at this rally. Men. were called to establish their relationship with Christ, co honor and respect their wives, and to Jove their children. They were not being offered the prize of leadership or the ego strokes of special importance if they were to turn their lives over to Christ.

Was the Pittsburgh 1996 rally different from others? Has Promise Keepers changed? Or had I just assumed the worst? Probably some of each. That is best answered by someone like Mary who is doing a careful analysis of the movement. But the consensus of those watching Promise Keepers is that movement leaders are listening to their critics. Earlier pronouncements that might be judged sexist have been toned down or eliminated.

Did I find anything that needs to be changed? Most certainly. They need to turn down the volume on their loudspeakers. I was exhausted when I got home because of the continual strain of the noise. (It was too loud to hear, if that is possible.)

But more seriously, while their humility before the sin of racism is admirable, Promise Keepers must deal more realistically with sexism. How this is to be done without having women speak, I do not know. With racism they can hear it from other men, but without women speaking for themselves any discussion of sexism will always lack authenticity and impact.

Promise number two states: “A Promise Keeper is committed to pursuing vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs brothers to help him keep his promises.” That works for most sins except those dealing with issues of gender. I wonder if the sermon on racism had been delivered by a white person instead of Pastor Garlington, would it have contained all that the audience needed to hear? I wonder, what would the men listening to Pastor Garlington have thought if the friend to whom he was accountable for his racism had been another African-American? Would his testimony would have been received as credible? I doubt it.

The present program format, that is, male-only platform speakers, does not make a balanced presentation of sexism possible. Promise Keepers need to hear from women as well as men on this painful subject.

What do I think of a Christian rally for men only? The day before attending, I had explained to a friend my disapproval of men gathering alone for worship and fellowship. The 1996 Promise Keepers rally in Pittsburgh proved to me that it can be a good thing.

It all comes down to a question of motive. When the early Jewish Christians wanted to exclude the Gentile Christians, the Apostle Paul said, “They want to exclude you, that you may be zealous for them” (Gal 4: 17). Was that the Promise Keepers’ motive? Were they trying to make themselves important in the eyes of women? No. After observing Promise Keepers, I believe their reason for going apart as men has a certain merit.

Just as I have defended women’s fellowship groups based upon the special needs of women in society, I can now appreciate the need for men’s fellowship groups based upon the special needs of men. I saw that with sexual tension gone from their lives for just a few hours, men could concentrate on something more important. But single sex gatherings must only be a step toward a goal, and that goal is the unity of all believers in Christ.

God said that it is not good for man to be alone. He was not just speaking about marriage. All human situations are to be lived in community between men and women. The fact that, at this time in history, men must leave the company of women to worship and encounter Christ, is an evidence of the deleterious power of sexual tension in our modern culture.

Would the presence of a woman on the platform destroy the positive aspects of the all-male atmosphere? This is a legitimate question. However, Christian women’s groups to which I belong all include male speakers from time to time without destroying the essential purpose for which they draw apart as women. The perspective that the male speaker brings usually adds to the depth of the experience—and goes a long way toward keeping trust and communication open between the sexes. There is no mystery about what goes on in women’s meetings similar to that which has plagued (needlessly?) Promise Keepers.

I have a final observation about Promise Keepers, and it is with regard to emotion. Perhaps the most often commented upon aspect of Promise Keepers is the outpouring of emotion by those attending. Our culture has a strong taboo against men expressing any emotion other than anger. The great exception is in the context of athletics. Both participant and spectator may show a whole range of emotions. They may freely weep for joy, hug, even kiss another male and not lose their masculinity.

The taboo against male expression of emotion is especially strong in church life. Reformed doctrine has gone a long way toward presenting us with a God void of emotion except, of course, for wrath and anger. (Even God’s love is put in the category of an “attribute” rather than an emotion.) So it is not surprising that when men need to learn to express some emotion other than anger, they would feel most comfortable in a sports stadium with a football coach leading them forward. This thought is not original with me; I have heard others mention it. But seeing men stand with their arms around each other singing and listening to speakers, I thought again about the need for men to have a safe place to express emotion. At Promise Keepers they have found it. When men are allowed to display affection for each other that is not immediately tagged homosexual, perhaps then they can begin to relate to their sisters in Christ in a nonsexual way. I think that is what I saw happening at Promise Keepers, and that promises great things for the future of the Kingdom.

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