Greenbelt Interfaith News
    Washington Feature

    October 4, 1997

    The Mystery and the Promise
    Promise Keepers Holds a Sacred Assembly on the Mall
    By Heather Elizabeth Peterson
    Greenbelt Interfaith News

    At 8:30 a.m. on a typical weekend morning, the subway cars of the Washington Metro are filled with families on their way to D.C. to visit the museums. Wearing bright tee-shirts covered with catchy slogans, the family members peruse their Metro maps anxiously, arguing about which station to disembark at.

    On Saturday, October 4, the same cheerful arguments are taking place, and the inhabitants of the subway car – many from out of town – are dressed in bright tee-shirts covered with catchy slogans. The slogans, though, are of a different sort. "If you can't stand the heat," says one, "stay outta hell." "I pledge allegiance to the Lord," says another. And one says simply, "Isn't God the greatest?"

    There appear to be no doubts on this subject among the visitors crammed into the subway car. With their voices raised high – or rather, low, as no women are present to join in – they sing, "Our God is an awesome God. He reigns with the power of wings . . ."

    "Alleluia!" cries the black man leading the singing. "Thank Jesus!"

    Nearby, Joe Gagnon of Langhorne, Pennsylvania, gives a bemused laugh. "His voice is going to give out if he keeps on like that," he says.

    This is not Mr. Gagnon's usual style of worship; he is a member of Langhorne Presbyterian Church, and though he takes part occasionally in the men's group there, it had not occurred to him to attend any larger men's gathering. Then he received a telephone call from a fellow church member. Would Mr. Gagnon like to go to Stand in the Gap? It was a sacred assembly being held in Washington by Promise Keepers, a group founded in 1990 to renew men's ministry within the Christian church.

    Mr. Gagnon's wife had no objections, though she perused media accounts of the event, trying to figure out what it was all about. Mr. Gagnon is not certain himself.

    "I wasn't sure from the press reports what it would be like," he says. "So far it seems like a football game."

    The subway train stops a few blocks from the Mall, the long stretch of green ground where large celebrations are held in Washington, D.C. Men pour off the train, walk in a long line down the city streets, and then stop. It is 9 a.m., three hours before the assembly is due to start, and already most of the Mall is filled with men.

    It is an odd sight for Washington. Young and old mill together, men of different races greeting strangers as though they are old-time friends, while the line for the men's room at the nearby Air and Space Museum stretches for yards. There is no line in the women's room.

    Sherry Dunavin of Topeka, Kansas, and Jean Carnes of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, are among the few women present. They wear leather jackets; both women are members of the Christian Motorcyclists Association, and they have both come to the assembly with their husbands on a cross-country trip.

    The motorcycles began their journey at Needles, California, picking up motorcyclists on the way, until, the women report, the line of bikers was eight miles long. Among the 9,000 riders was an 81-year-old man from Oregon. Others have come from overseas; the women quote a motorcyclist who described his journey from Australia: as he crossed the Pacific Ocean, he said, "My periscope had to come up real high."

    Ms. Dunavin's jacket is covered with badges from Christian rallies she has attended; a pair of handcuffs indicates her participation in a prison ministry. She has been especially impressed, though, by the effect of Promise Keepers on her husband. "It's almost like he's a new person, bursting from the inside," she says.

    "He goes to Promise Keepers wherever he goes," she adds. "I figured if I could just hear (the worship), I would be blessed too."

    It is a sentiment echoed by Pat Dahlke of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, who is standing in the middle of Jefferson Drive, distributing copies of the New Testament supplied by Promise Keepers. This is her first time at a Promise Keepers rally, though she has attended women-only rallies through her membership in Joyful Journeys. "I wanted to take part in this," she says, "and volunteering was the only way I could do it."

    Her husband, she says, is known by his fellow church members as Mr. PK. Ms. Dahlke sees herself as the benefactor of her husband's participation in the movement. "He has always been a Christian man, but I've seen him develop into a more family-oriented man," she says.

    Then touching on one of Promise Keepers' darkest controversies, she says, "I've had people ask me, ‘Are you one of those submissive women?'" She pauses, then adds, "And I say, ‘If you want to put it that way, Yes – and I'm proud of it.'"


      Wives, be subject to your husbands, as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

      Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind – yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church; because we are members of his body. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.

    Any discussion of Promise Keepers' theology begins – and sometimes ends – with this passage from St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians. Promise Keepers has a hard time conveying to outsiders the most important elements of the passage: the theme of leadership through servitude, the vision of a husband's boundless love for his wife. But when all is said and done, one important fact remains: Promise Keepers interprets this passage in its literal sense and regards the hierarchical model of marriage as being ordained by God.

    This belief has caused an outcry in some quarters, and opponents such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) speak darkly of men being seduced into an anachronistic form of marriage. But in fact there is nothing especially surprising about Promise Keepers' view of marriage. It is a view held by many conservative Christians, most of whom consider the Bible to be inerrant.

    Promise Keepers' theology of marriage is therefore not a dead system but a living one; many members of Promise Keepers, and many of the members' wives, held this view of marriage before becoming involved in the popular men's movement; Promise Keepers has simply provided them with a way to hold true to the standards in which they always believed.

    Although the secular world has reacted with shock to Promise Keepers' teachings, other Christians are not surprised by what Promise Keepers has to say. Some are concerned, though, by the group's tendency to present a literal interpretation of this New Testament passage as though it were the only acceptable one.

    This passage, in fact, has been a flash point for decades in any debate concerning gender roles for Christians. The questions posed by it have been many: When Paul wrote these words, was he a captive of his own society's concepts about the proper role of women? At one time, similar passages in the New Testament were used to defend the divine right of kings and even slavery – is this another case where hierarchy ought to be abandoned?

    Alternatively, is this a passage that gives wise insight into the essential differences between men and women? Is our era's love for egalitarianism and its determination to erase all differences between the genders blinding modern Christians to the truth of the older words?

    It is an important and difficult debate. For some conservative Christians, though, debate is not necessary; the issue is settled, and anyone who pretends otherwise need not call himself Christian. One man, seeing a group of women go by with a banner on this Saturday morning, asks another man, "Are they feminists? Or are they Christians?"

    This is a question that would not go over well with Karen Johnson, vice president in charge of membership for NOW, and a committed Lutheran.

    The weekend of the assembly has been filled with counter-protests. Equal Partners in Faith, an interdenominational coalition protesting Promise Keepers' views, held a prayer vigil at the U.S. Capitol on October 3. On the day of the rally, though, the most visible sign of protest is the NOW demonstration held at a tiny triangle of land between Constitution Avenue, Louisiana Avenue, and First Street. While a member of a counter-demonstration explains to the protesters that they are all headed for hell, Ms. Johnson tries, in a lukewarm manner, to praise Promise Keepers for its accomplishments in persuading men to acknowledge their misdeeds.

    Her voice grows stronger, though, when she begins explaining her disagreements with the movement. From a Christian point of view, she says, those disagreements are two-fold. First of all, she has seen evidence that the nondenominational movement is alienating Christian men from their own pastors, particularly when the pastors are women. Second of all, she says, "The Promise Keepers have no respect for diversity within Christianity, much less other religions. . . . As Christians, we have different interpretations of the Bible, literal and figurative."

    She adds, "I have no problem submitting to God; I have a problem submitting to man. I think man has been trying to make God in his own image for a long time."

    The issue of sexual roles within marriage is closely tied with the issue of sexuality, and here Promise Keepers has been consistent, upholding the conservative Christian view that homosexuality is a sin. Will Schroeder and Wayne Besen, a gay couple from D.C., are not members of NOW, but they joined the demonstration out of anger toward Promise Keepers' teachings on homosexuality.

    "We're not protesting anyone's right to belong to any religion, or to pray in public," says Mr. Schroeder. "We oppose the idea that our existence is anti-natural."

    He is seconded by Mr. Besen, who is Jewish, and who wears a tee-shirt saying, "The Christian right is neither." His own encounters with Christian conservatism, he says, have not been happy; his previous employer was of the Christian right, and that employer fired him for being gay. "The Promise Keepers tell everyone what God wants," he says. "I believe that religion is a matter of conscience between an individual and God."

    Gesturing toward Mr. Schroeder, he adds, "We want to be married, but society won't allow us to be, and the Promise Keepers want to keep it that way. . . . We just don't want anyone denying the American dream to us in the name of God."


    The men who attend Stand in the Gap are acutely conscious of the criticisms, and offer defenses of the Promise Keepers movement without being asked. "The people in the women's movement think it's about men taking over the household," says Rory Finlin, a teenager from Chatham, Ontario. "It's not – it's about making men of God in a godly, Christian manner."

    Don Chairez of Las Vegas agrees. The feminists and Promise Keepers have more in common than the feminists realize, he says. "What do the feminists say? ‘One of the biggest problems in this country is dead-beat dads.' What do the Promise Keepers say? ‘One of the biggest problems in this country is dead-beat dads.'"

    Mr. Chairez, who works as district judge, says that eighty to ninety percent of the men he sees being sent to prison come from broken homes. He believes that the feminists and the Promise Keepers should spend time considering what they have in common rather than fighting each other.

    Rodney Heiselman of Las Vegas sees NOW's presence as a great opportunity. "Actions speak louder than words, and they'll be able to see our actions today," he says. "There has been a breakdown in communication – people only fear what they don't know."

    Mr. Heiselman adds that the press has presented a distorted image of Promise Keepers' work. "My wife sees that I want to change to be the man I'm called to be," he says. "I'm leading her into the glory, getting the family together and going to church. Domination has nothing to do with it. The point of Promise Keepers is to bring men together and tell them to be responsible."

    He took a vow at his wedding, he says, to love his wife for better or for worse, and few men realize what those words mean. He is not here to learn how to dominate his wife – he is here to learn to repent.

    As he turns away to leave, he catches sight of Mr. Chairez, who is discussing with another man the relative merits of various places to stand during the assembly. Mr. Heiselman belongs to an Assembly of God church; Mr. Chairez belongs to a Seventh-day Adventist church. The two men met through church activities.

    "Don's a great guy," Mr. Heiselman says. "I'm a construction worker and I didn't have the money to come down here. I really wanted to come, though; I figured I'd have to hold a lot of yard sales. And then one day Don came up to me and said, ‘I want you to be my guest on this trip.'"

    Nearby, another visitor greets another stranger. All around, men are shaking hands with men who are merely passing by. On the Mall and on streets nearby, men join hands to pray. It is all part of what Promise Keepers is trying to achieve: men supporting each other in their Christian ministry.

    Standing above the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, David Rogers of Rochester, New York, raises his head, which is covered with the skullcap he wears as a Messianic Jew. Over the loudspeakers comes the sound of a long, low horn: the shofar, blown during the High Holy Days of the Jewish year to call people to worship. The crowd erupts into cheers, which travel like waves down the length of the Mall. And hidden in the crowd, among the men who have travelled hundreds and thousands of miles to take part in this assembly, Joe Gagnon listens in curiosity to discover what this is all about.

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    ©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson